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Tears normally drain from the eye through small tubes called tear ducts, which stretch from the eye into the nose. If a tear duct becomes blocked or fails to open, tears cannot drain from the eye properly. The duct may fill with fluid and become swollen, inflamed, and sometimes infected.
Blocked tear ducts happen most often in babies, though they may occur at any age. They affect about 6 out of 100 newborns.1
Most of the time, blocked tear ducts in babies clear up on their own during the baby's first year. They usually have no effect on the baby's vision or cause any lasting eye problems.
Causes of blocked tear ducts in children include:
Blocked tear ducts may run in families.
In adults, blocked tear ducts may be caused by an injury to the bones or tissues around the eyes or by another disorder, sometimes related to aging. For example, a blocked tear duct may result from a thickening of the tear duct lining, abnormal tissue or structures in the nose, or problems from surgery on or around the nose.
Symptoms often affect only one eye. They may include:
Babies who have blocked tear ducts usually have symptoms within the first few days to the first few weeks after birth.
The symptoms of a blocked tear duct may get worse after an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or sinus infection. Wind, cold, and sunlight also may make symptoms worse.
A blocked tear duct is diagnosed based on a medical history and a physical exam. The doctor may also use tests to measure the amount of tears or to see if tears are draining normally from the eyes. Other tests can help your doctor find out where the blockage is or how it was caused.
Most babies who have blocked tear ducts don't need treatment. To help prevent infection and other problems until the blockage goes away:
If signs of infection develop, your baby may need antibiotics.
Sometimes a probing procedure may be done to open the duct if the duct doesn't clear on its own. Probing successfully opens the duct for about 80 out of 100 babies who have blocked ducts.1 In rare cases, babies with blocked tear ducts have a more severe problem that requires more complex surgery.
In adults who have blocked tear ducts, treatment depends on the cause of the blockage. If the duct is blocked because of a long-term infection, antibiotics may be used. Surgery may be needed for structural problems or abnormal growths. Probing usually isn't done for adults.
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Learning about blocked tear ducts:
The American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus (AAPOS) provides information and encourages research on medical and surgical eye care for children and adults with strabismus and other eye problems.
EyeCare America is a public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. This site aims to raise awareness about eye diseases and eye care. It has information about eye conditions, treatments, and general eye health. You can check to see if you qualify for a free eye exam.
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
CitationsOlitsky SE, et al. (2011). Disorders of the lacrimal system. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 2165–2166. Philadelphia: Saunders.Other Works ConsultedBraverman RS (2009). Nasolacrimal duct obstruction section of Eye. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 19th ed., p. 407. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Last Revised: November 8, 2011
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Christopher J. Rudnisky, MD, MPH, FRCSC - Ophthalmology
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