Watery Eye

What is watery eye?

Watery eye (epiphora) is a condition where tears overflow. People often find that they have tears in their eyelashes and streaming down their cheeks. This may be caused by a blockage in the tear drainage system or excess tear production.

Blocked tear ducts

blockage or narrowing of the tear duct (lacrimal duct) is the most common cause of watery eye in adults. Over time the tear ducts can become narrowed or blocked, often because of swelling and inflammation.  If your tear ducts become blocked, then your tears cannot drain away and will remain in the tear (lacrimal) sac. Unable to drain away, the tears may overflow onto your cheek.

The tear sac can become infected causing the eye to produce a sticky liquid. If this occurs, you may notice a swelling on the side of your nose next to your eye. Occasionally the narrow drainage channels on the inside of your eyes (canaliculi) may also become blocked due to scarring or inflammation. It is important to get this treated right away.

Excess tear production

If your eyes are irritated, they will naturally produce additional tears to wash away the irritant. Sources of irritation include:

  • Chemicals such as onions or fumes

  • Eye infections such as viral or bacterial conjunctivitis

  • Allergens such as pollen or dust (allergic conjunctivitis)

  • Eye injury such as scratch or piece of grit in the eye

  • An inward-growing eyelash

  • Entropian - inward turning of the eyelid

  • Ectropian - outward turning of the eyelid

How is watery eye treated?

Treatment for watery eye depends on the severity of the problem and what the cause is. Most causes of epiphora can be quickly diagnosed and can usually be treated without surgery. Treatment may not be necessary in mild cases of watery eye.

Treating irritation

  • Cause by infective (viral or bacterial) conjunctivitis: Medication may be prescribed. In some cases, no treatment is necessary, and the condition is left to resolve on its own.

  • Cause by dry-eye syndrome: lubricant drops or gel may be prescribed to alleviate symptoms

  • Cause by inward-growing eyelash: eyelash removal

  • Cause by eyelids turning inwards (entropion) or outwards (ectropion): minor surgery to return eyelid to normal position

Treating blockage

If the cause of watery eye is thought to be a blockage then the ophthalmologist may insert a narrow probe into the duct to assess the drainage system.​ To locate a blockage a narrow probe is inserted into the tear duct leading to the tear sac. If the probe enters the sac without resistance, then the blockage is likely further down in the drainage system, in the nasolacrimal duct. The ophthalmologist will “flush” the drainage system with saline solution which may help to clear the blockage. If your blockage is minor, syringing and probing will usually be all the treatment necessary. However, if the blockage cannot be cleared then a surgical procedure may be recommended. In the procedure a new passage is made to bypass the blockage.