If you have a blocked tear duct, your tears can't drain properly. This can leave you with watery and irritated eyes. This article explains what causes a blocked tear duct, how it can be treated, and how you can prevent it from happening.
What causes a blocked tear duct?
Tears form to keep the eye moist. They usually drain away through a small opening, near the nose, on each of the upper and lower eyelids. Then they travel through a narrow tube called a tear duct before draining into the nose. This is why your nose runs when you cry.
When you have a blocked tear duct, the tears can't drain away as they should. When this happens, you get watery eyes and tears can trickle down your face.
About 1 in 20 babies are born with a blocked tear duct. The duct might not be fully developed, or it might be too narrow. This then causes a blockage.
Adults get blocked tear ducts too, often from an infection. They can be caused by injuries, and occasionally by medicines.
Women who have gone through menopause might also develop blocked tear ducts.
Other things can cause watery eyes too. For example, your eyes might produce extra tears to fight irritation and dryness caused by dry eye syndrome.
Talk to your doctor if you or your child has watery, sore or irritated eyes.
Blocked tear duct symptoms
Common symptoms of a blocked tear duct include watery eyes and a sticky white or yellow discharge that can become crusty, especially after sleeping.
Sometimes a tear duct can get infected. Signs of an infection in babies include a discharge that is stickier than normal, a green discharge, swollen red eyelids, and sensitivity to light. The baby may also frequently squeeze their eyes shut.
These symptoms can occur in adults too. An infection can also cause pain and blurred vision.
See a doctor if you or your child show any symptoms of eye infection.
Blocked tear duct diagnosis
Your doctor will examine your or your child's eyes. They might then refer you to an ophthalmologist.
Tests could include using dye to see if tears drain through the tear duct or overflow. Sometimes your ophthalmologist might recommend an x-ray, or they might use a fine probe to check where the blockage is.
If you have an infection, your doctor might recommend an antibiotic.
Blocked tear duct treatment
Most babies with blocked tear ducts get better before they are one year of age. Until that happens, you can:
- massage the area around the tear duct
- wipe away tears and sticky discharge with a damp cloth or cotton wool
If the tear duct doesn't open properly by the time the child reaches one year of age, an ophthalmologist might use a fine probe to open up the tear duct. This is done under general anaesthetic.
In adults, treatment will depend on what is causing the blocked tear ducts. If surgery is needed, it will involve bypassing the blockage by creating a new passageway, or implanting an artificial duct so that tears can drain properly.
Preventing a blocked tear duct
Eye infections are a common cause of a blocked tear duct in adults. To reduce your risk of getting an eye infection, wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water. Try not to rub your eyes, and don't share eye cosmetics.
If you wear contact lenses, talk to your optician about the best way to use, store and clean them.
Where to get help
If you have symptoms, healthdirect's online Symptom Checker can help you decide what to do next.
Find a doctor or ophthalmologist near you with healthdirect's service finder function.
Both the Raising Children Network and the Women's and Children's Health Network have information on blocked tear ducts in babies and children. They also have plenty of information on many other aspects of child health.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: March 2018