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Watering eye, also known as epiphora or tearing, is a condition in which there is an overflow of tears onto the face, often without a clear explanation.

Epiphora happens when there is either an overproduction of tears or insufficient tear film drainage from the eye or eyes. When tears are unable to drain properly through the nasolacrimal system, they overflow onto the face.

Tears are needed to keep the eye’s front surface healthy and maintain clear vision, but too many tears can make it difficult to see. This can make driving difficult and dangerous.

Epiphora can develop at any age, but it is more common in those aged under 12 months or over 60 years. It may affect one or both eyes. However, it is possible to treat the condition effectively.

The two main causes of watering eyes are blocked tear ducts and the excessive production of tears.

Blocked tear ducts

Some people are born with underdeveloped tear ducts. Newborns often have watery eyes that usually clear up within a few weeks as the ducts develop.

In older children and adults, blocked tear ducts can occur in one or both eyes and may occur alongside other symptoms, such as blurred vision, swelling, crusting of the eyelids, and redness in the eyes.

In some cases, these symptoms may worsen after exposure to wind or cold temperatures.

The most common cause of watering eyes among adults and older children is blocked ducts or ducts that are too narrow. Narrowed tear ducts usually develop as a result of swelling or inflammation.

If the tear ducts are narrowed or blocked, tears will not drain away and will build up in the tear sac. Stagnant tears in the tear sac increase the risk of infection, and the eye will produce a sticky liquid, making the problem worse. Infection can also lead to inflammation on the side of the nose, next to the eye.

Canaliculi, narrow drainage channels on the insides of the eyes, can become blocked. This happens due to swelling or scarring.

Over-production of tears

Irritated eyes may produce more tears than normal as the body tries to rinse the irritant away.

The following irritants can cause the over-production of tears in one or both eyes:

  • some chemicals, such as those in fumes and even onions
  • infective conjunctivitis, or pink eye
  • allergic conjunctivitis
  • injury to the eye, such as a scratch or the presence of a tiny pebble or piece of dirt
  • trichiasis, where eyelashes grow inward
  • ectropion, when the lower eyelid turns outward

Depending on the specific cause, over-production of tears due to irritation may occur alongside symptoms like inflammation, redness, itching, blurred vision, pain, and increased sensitivity to light.

Some people also have tears with a high fat or lipid content. This may interfere with the even spread of liquid across the eye, leaving dry patches that become sore and irritated, causing the eye to produce more tears.

Exposure to smoke, wind, or cold weather can also increase tear production temporarily, as can yawning, laughing, or vomiting.

Other causes

There are many causes of watering eyes. Other conditions that can lead to an overflow of tears in one or both eyes include:

Treatment depends on how severe the problem is, the cause, and whether or not other symptoms are present.

In mild cases, doctors may recommend just watchful waiting or doing nothing and monitoring the patient’s progress.

However, if the issue doesn’t clear up on its own or if symptoms worsen, additional treatment may be necessary.

Different causes of watering eyes need specific treatment options, including:

  • Irritation: Watering due to viral conjunctivitis typically improves on its own, whereas doctors treat bacterial conjunctivitis with antibiotic drops.
  • Trichiasis: For an inward-growing eyelash, or some foreign object lodged in the eye, the doctor will remove it from the affected eye.
  • Ectropion: If the eyelid turns outwards, the patient may need to undergo surgery in which a doctor tightens the tendon that holds the eyelid in place. This condition can affect one or both eyelids.
  • Blocked tear ducts: Surgery can create a new channel from the tear sac to the inside of the nose. This allows the tears to bypass the blocked part of the tear duct. This surgical procedure is called dacryocystorhinostomy.

If the drainage channels, or canaliculi, on the inside of one or both eyes are narrow but not entirely blocked, the doctor may use a probe to make them wider. When the canaliculi have completely blocked, a person may require an operation.

Watering eyes in babies

In newborns, the condition usually resolves itself within a few weeks. Only 1–6% of children experience symptoms.

Sometimes a sticky liquid may form around the baby’s eye or eyes. A caregiver can use a piece of cotton wool soaked in sterile water to clean the eyes.

It may be possible to dislodge tears by gently massaging the tear ducts, applying light pressure with the finger and thumb to the outside of the nose.

Home remedies can treat some cases of watering eyes without a person having to see a doctor.

People can treat many underlying causes or symptoms of watering eyes with over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops or medications.

Home remedies include:

  • taking a break from reading, watching TV, or using the computer
  • lubricating the eyes with eye drops, available to purchase OTC or online
  • holding a warm, damp cloth over the affected eye or eyes and massaging the eyelid to release any blockages
  • using an OTC medication to relieve allergy symptoms
  • using a sanitized eye wipe to remove any dirt and debris from the eyes and eyelids

If the following symptoms occur, a person should contact a doctor:

  • reduced vision
  • pain or swelling around the eyes
  • a feeling that something is in the eye
  • persistent redness in the eye
  • tearing and pain that a person feels first thing in the morning, which can suggest a recurrent corneal erosion, or the outer layer of the cornea wearing away
  • burning and discomfort when blinking in the morning, which may be related to the eyes being too dry

Epiphora is fairly easy to diagnose. A doctor will try to determine whether the cause is a lesion, infection, entropion, or an inward-turning eyelid, or ectropion, an outward-turning eyelid.

In some cases, the patient may need to see an eye-care specialist doctor or ophthalmologist, who will examine the eyes, possibly under anesthetic.

The doctor may need to insert a probe into the narrow drainage channels inside the eye to see if they are blocked.

They may also insert a liquid into a tear duct to check whether it then comes out of the patient’s nose. If the person feels the fluid in their nose, their tear system is not blocked. If it is blocked, the liquid will move back toward the eye.