If you've watched a bawling baby recently - or just Hollywood's latest tearjerker - you're well aware that some tears stream out of your eyes down your face. However, we also have tear ducts (also called nasolacrimal ducts or lacrimal ducts) that drain tears through our noses. These drainage ducts are why your nose gets runny when you cry or when your eyes water from an allergic reaction.

When these tear ducts are clogged, problems occur. Let's explore what causes tear duct blockage, what happens, and how it's fixed.

What causes blocked tear ducts?

Tear ducts become blocked for a variety of reasons.

Congenital blockage: As many as one-fifth of infants are born with blocked ducts. This might be because of underdeveloped or abnormal ducts, or because of developmental issues in the structure of the face and skull.

Narrowing of ducts with age: As adults age, the openings of tear ducts can narrow, increasing the likelihood of tear duct obstruction.

Infection and inflammation: Infections and inflammations of the tear ducts, eyes and nose can all cause blocked tear ducts. Tear duct blockage can itself also cause infection and inflammation.

Facial injuries and trauma: Any injuries that affect the tear ducts or the bone structure surrounding them can lead to blocked tear ducts.

Tumours, cysts, and stones: Blocked tear ducts can also arise from tumours and other growths.

As you can see, while blocked tear ducts cause a variety of symptoms, they also signal underlying issues. Always consult your optician or doctor about issues with your eyes, so you can get prompt attention and care of any problems.

Blocked tear duct symptoms

A number of symptoms can arise from tear duct obstruction or infections caused by the blockage. These include:

  • Watery eyes and excessive tearing
  • Recurring inflammation and infection (infections are both causes and effects of tear duct blockage)
  • Mucus build-up and discharge
  • Pain and swelling in the inside corner of your eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Bloody tears

Your eye doctor can evaluate and test to see whether your tear ducts are draining properly, and help you assess your options for treatment.

Treatment for blocked tear ducts

The best way to treat blocked tear ducts depends on what's causing the blockage. Doctors recommend trying the least invasive options first, and will help you assess what's right for you and when you need to expand your options.

Here are some common methods of treatment for blocked tear ducts.

Blocked tear ducts in infants

With many infants, blocked tear ducts disappear on their own within the first year. However, there are cases where treatment is necessary. The first method of treatmen for blocked tear ducts in infants involves dilation (a gentle opening of the duct), probing and irrigation. If this doesn't work, eye doctors will sometimes insert an expandable balloon to further dilate the ducts.

Blocked tear ducts in adults

Blocked tear ducts in adults are usually a sign of narrowing or other issues that don't resolve on their own. The first course of treatment is the same as that for babies: dilation, probing and irrigation.

Stenting and intubation, where a tube is inserted to keep the lacrimal duct open, is a surgical option for cases that don't respond to less invasive treatment.

As always, make sure to check with your optician or doctor if you have symptoms or concerns. His or her job is to test your eyes regularly to keep an eye out for issues, but also to assess problems that arise between regularly exams and to help you identify your best treatment options.

Nothing in this article is to be construed as medical advice, nor is it intended to replace the recommendations of a medical professional. For specific questions, please see your eye care practitioner.
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