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Could Your Watery Eyes Be a Sign of a Blocked Tear Duct?

Dr. Grace Lee, a plastic eye surgeon at Mass. Eye and Ear, talks about blocked tear ducts — a condition that’s surprisingly common in older adults.

Tears are important for your eyes to work correctly. They wash away dust and particles that get into the eye and help to keep the eye moist and healthy.

Normally, tears drain from the eye through tiny pores in the eyelids into tear ducts inside the nose. But if a tear duct gets blocked, it can cause watery eyes, with tears that stream down your face. In most cases, only one eye is affected. Other symptoms may include discharge from the eye and pain and swelling in the corner of the eye, which can be a sign of infection.

“Excessive tearing might not seem like a big deal, but it can really impair your quality of life,” said Grace Lee, MD, an eye plastic surgeon at Mass. Eye and Ear. “Watery eyes can make it difficult to see, especially while reading and driving. It’s also common to feel self-conscious or embarrassed about these symptoms.”

Dr. Lee adds that, most of the time, excessive tearing can be attributed to an overproduction of tears in response to a dry ocular surface, but it is important to see a specialist who can determine whether the problem is from overproduction, under-drainage — or a combination of both.

Excessive tearing can significantly impair quality of life, making it hard to see, especially while reading and driving. See a doctor if your eyes seem to be watering more than normal.

How does age affect your tear ducts?

Blocked tear ducts are especially common in infants, when tear ducts may not be fully developed yet. In most cases, the condition improves without treatment.

“But many people don’t realize that blocked tear ducts are also quite common after age 60,” said Dr. Lee. As we age, the small holes that drain tears can become obstructed or smaller, which slows the exit of tears into the nose, she explains.

Other common causes and risk factors

  • Certain inflammatory diseases, such as sarcoidosis
  • Tumors in the tear drainage system (nasal, lacrimal, sinus) such as lymphoma
  • Injury to the bones or tissues around the eyes and/or nose
  • Some cancer treatments (like radioactive iodine for thyroid conditions and certain chemotherapy drugs)
  • Prior surgery in the nose, sinuses, or eyelids

When to see a doctor

If your eyes seem to be watering more than normal, tell your doctor.

“Many people assume it’s just a normal sign of aging that they need to live with,” said Dr. Lee. “But blocked tear ducts are actually very easy to diagnose and to treat.”

She also cautions that a blocked tear duct can lead to an infection. See your doctor right away if you develop a fever and experience redness, swelling and pain in the area between the eye and the nose.

Diagnosis and treatment

Your doctor will examine the inside of your nose to see if any structural problems are causing an obstruction. They may place a drop of a special dye on your eye to see if it drains or remains on the surface of the eye. They might also flush saline through your tear canal in the eyelid to see if the fluid drains properly into the nose and throat. And if needed, they may also use imaging tests to determine the location and cause of the blockage.

Treatment depends on the cause of the blockage, but most cases in adults can be fixed with surgery to widen or bypass the blocked duct. The outpatient procedure is performed under general anesthesia and typically takes 45 minutes or less.

“The recovery time is quick, and most patients are very satisfied with the results,” Dr. Lee said.

About our expert

gracelee-6034487Dr. Grace Lee is a plastic surgeon who specializes in conditions that affect the eyelids, eye socket and tear drainage system. She also treats trauma and tumors that affect the bones of the eye socket and surrounding tissue. She sees patients at Mass. Eye and Ear’s main campus (243 Charles Street, Boston), as well as in Malden (578 Main Street).




6 thoughts on “Could Your Watery Eyes Be a Sign of a Blocked Tear Duct?”

  1. Your article is appreciated as many people are told often by a physician that they only have a dry eye when they have eye tearing, though they have no pain or redness. After being told I should use ointment to lubricate that single dry eye at night by an ophthalmologist and later an eye surgeon ( with no tests done), I went to an ENT physician this week who has ordered an MRI. All the physicians involved were made aware that I had a large morpheaform tumor removed from my nose and two precancerous growths removed from my face. It is unfortunate tearing in one eye is brushed off so easily, thus leaving the patient with an embarrassing and perhaps more serious condition undiagnosed or properly treated.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and your feedback. We hope all readers keep in mind there are numerous causes and risk factors for watery eyes.

  2. Ophthalmologist has confirmed the tear ducts arenot blocked. A common treatment is to take a tuck in the eyelids but she does not recommend it due to my age i.e. 89yrs. Do you concur?

    1. Hi George, we can’t provide specific medical advice over the blog but if you’d like a consultation/appointment, you can call 617-573-5550.

  3. Hello. I have one watery eye for more than a year now. Im 29 years old and it started out of nowhere. Seen many doctors – ophthalmologist and Otorhinolaryngologist. They tried to flush my tier duct and it is blocked somewhere deeper to the nose side. I tried eye drops which is called Ducressa. They seemed to help. After using eye drops the flushing of tier duct worked and the liquid came to my mouth. After i stop using the eye drops, the tiers starts to not drain again.. None of the doctors seem to know what to do with me. And now i feel that even if i use Ducressa eye drops they are helping just a minimum. What are other options left for me? They done x-ray on my face and they cannot see anything blocking my tier duct..

    1. I ve had a watering eye for almost a year, My tear duct seems to be swollen just at lower lid draining sight, not in nose (lacrimal sac area) . so in my case, its inflamation. doctor said I dont have an infection. I have had radioactive iodine theraopy fpr thyrod cancee and was told at time it could cause a decline in integrity of facial tissue. so thats what i think is the cause although the eye doctor doesnt deem this as a reason. so I am focussing on the inflamation part. I stay hydrated, im starting ot use warm compresses, specifically with a tincture of garlic and ginger as they have proven great qualitie in reducing infection and inflamation, which I will do in the next 2 months till my next appintment. so far there are noticible improvement in the welling. I hope for the best for you. donot hesitate to ask questions. I believe most of the doctora out there do not knwo the deeper science that really finds the causes to help people find the solutions that target the causes not just the symptoms.

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