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Blocked tear duct

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Mar 8, 2023.

Overview

When you have a blocked tear duct, your tears can't drain normally, leaving you with a watery, irritated eye. The condition is caused by a partial or complete obstruction in the tear drainage system.

A blocked tear duct is common in newborns. The condition usually gets better without any treatment during the first year of life. In adults a blocked tear duct may be due to an injury, an infection or rarely, a tumor.

A blocked tear duct is almost always correctable. Treatment depends on the cause of the blockage and the age of the affected person.

Tear glands and tear ducts

The tear glands located above each eyeball, called the lacrimal glands, continuously supply tear fluid that's wiped across the surface of your eye each time you blink your eyelids. Excess fluid drains through the tear ducts into the nose.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a blocked tear duct include:

When to see a doctor

See your health care provider if you tear constantly for several days or if your eye is repeatedly or continually infected. A blocked tear duct may be caused by a tumor pressing on the tear drainage system. Early identification of the tumor can give you more treatment options.

Causes

Blocked tear ducts can happen at any age, from birth to adulthood. Causes include:

How the tear drainage system works

The lacrimal glands produce most of your tears. These glands are located inside the upper lids above each eye. Typically, tears flow from the lacrimal glands over the surface of your eye. Tears drain into openings, called puncta, on the inside corners of your upper and lower eyelids.

The puncta lead to small canals called canaliculi. Canaliculi move tears to a sac to a reservoir on the side of the nose called the lacrimal sac. From there tears travel down the nasolacrimal duct and drain into your nose. Once in the nose, tears are reabsorbed.

A blockage can occur at any point in the tear drainage system, from the puncta to your nose. When that happens, your tears don't drain properly, giving you watery eyes and increasing your risk of eye infections and inflammation.

Risk factors

Certain factors increase your risk of developing a blocked tear duct:

Complications

Because your tears aren't draining the way they should, the tears that remain in the drainage system become stagnant. This promotes growth of bacteria, viruses and fungi, which can lead to frequent eye infections and inflammation.

Any part of the tear drainage system, including the clear membrane over your eye surface known as the conjunctiva, can become infected or inflamed because of a blocked tear duct.

Prevention

To reduce your risk of developing a blocked tear duct later in life, get prompt treatment of eye inflammation or infections. Follow these tips to avoid eye infections in the first place:

Diagnosis

To diagnose your condition, your health care provider talks with you about your symptoms, examines your eyes and does a few tests. Your provider will also examine the inside of your nose to determine if any structural disorders of your nasal passages are causing an obstruction. If your provider suspects a blocked tear duct, you may undergo other tests to find the location of the blockage.

Tests used to diagnose a blocked tear duct include:

Treatment

Your treatment depends on what's causing the blocked tear duct. You may need more than one approach to correct the problem. If a tumor is causing your blocked tear duct, treatment will focus on the cause of the tumor. Surgery may be performed to remove the tumor, or your provider may recommend using other treatments to shrink it.

Surgery

The surgery that's commonly used to treat blocked tear ducts is called dacryocystorhinostomy (DAK-ree-oh-sis-toe-rye-nohs-tuh-me). This procedure opens the passageway for tears to drain out your nose again. You'll be given a general anesthetic, or a local anesthetic if it's performed as an outpatient procedure.

The steps in this procedure vary, depending on the exact location and extent of your blockage, as well as your surgeon's experience and preferences.

Following surgery you'll use a nasal decongestant spray and eye drops to prevent infection and reduce inflammation. After 6 to 12 weeks, you'll return to your provider's office for removal of any stents used to keep the new channel open during the healing process.

Preparing for your appointment

You may start by seeing your primary health care provider. You may then be referred to a doctor who specializes in treating disorders of the eye, called an ophthalmologist. In some instances, your eye doctor may refer you to someone who specializes in ophthalmic plastic surgery for the eye.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

Before your appointment make a list of:

For a blocked tear duct, some basic questions to ask include:

What to expect from your doctor

Your provider is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:

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