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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.footnote 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 examination. 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.footnote 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.
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.
Current as of: May 27, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: John Pope MD - PediatricsAnne C. Poinier MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineChristopher J. Rudnisky MD, MPH, FRCSC - Ophthalmology
Current as of: May 27, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope MD - Pediatrics & Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Christopher J. Rudnisky MD, MPH, FRCSC - Ophthalmology
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