If you found this article by searching to find a reason for this odd phenomenon, then you probably already know this happens. Or maybe you were hoping to find out you’re not weird and thought it was worth checking to see if being able to taste a liquid that you placed in your eye is a problem. Good news! It’s the opposite of a problem.
The eye drainage system
The opposite of a problem is a solution. And that’s what the drainage system is for the surface of your eye. It is a solution to the issue of what to do with the tears constantly being produced to keep your eye’s surface nice and glossy. Ever see a baby with a blocked tear duct? No? Okay, I wasn’t sure if that just seemed common to me because I’m an eye doctor. When an infant has a blocked tear duct, they have constant goop in their eye. It’s a big, soupy mess. Then when the tear duct opens, usually on its own over time, their eye immediately looks great.
Our eyes need a thin film of tears. Even though it is mostly water, there are also proteins, mucus, oils, and a whole slew of ingredients that compose the tear film. When the normal flow of tears (production, coverage of the eye, drainage off the eye) gets blocked, it causes problems. It’d be bad enough if it just made you look like you were crying because tears were piling up and spilling over your lid. But it’s even worse, because all those other ingredients get out of whack and all the build-up looks a lot like pink eye. And everyone knows what pink eye looks like, because we all inherently know to stay far away from people who look like they have pink eye. In a way, a functioning tear drainage system is part of what lets us have friends because it keeps people from saying, “Oh gross, please don’t come near me with your eye.”
So where do the tears drain?
They fall into a little hole in the inner corner of your eyelid called the punctum. People sometimes think that’s where tears are produced, but it’s actually where they are removed from the eye. The punctum leads to the nasolacrimal duct, and that ends up draining into your nose. Naso is medical for nose and lacrimal is medical for tears.
If you’ve ever seen the beginning part of the Disney movie Up, then you know what it’s like to cry during a movie. Any time you’ve cried during a movie and gotten the sniffles, those were tears you were sniffling. A big rush of tears may send some down your face, but a lot of them also flood down the nasolacrimal duct and into your nose. Then you sniff so that tears and snot don’t come out of your nose. You can see why they named it something cute like “sniffling” since it feels more emotionally fitting to say that than the tears and snot thing that I just said.
Tears get sniffed and sniffs go down the back of your throat. The air keeps moving on to your lungs, but the liquid stuff stays in your throat so that you don’t get pneumonia every time you sniff. And there, in our throat, are a bunch of tastebuds. Just like the ones on our tongue! Why are there tastebuds there? It beats me. They’re just bonus tastebuds, and we all have them. But they answer the question that we started with at the beginning.
When a medicated eye drop lands on your eye, only 20% of it stays there and the rest drains out. It travels through the punctum, down the nasolacrimal duct, gets sniffed into the back of our throat, and then lands on some tastebuds. And then, you can “taste” your eye drops. The bad news is, they don’t taste great. But the good news is you can rest assured you have an efficiently functioning tear drainage system, and that’s going to help you have lots of friends.