Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Eye Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

decision pointShould my baby have a probing procedure to open a blocked tear duct?

Although there are surgical options for opening a blocked tear duct, this information deals only with the probing procedure. The probing procedure is commonly used to open a blocked tear duct in a baby 6 to 12 months old. Consider the following when making your decision:

  • Most blocked tear ducts open on their own by the time a baby is 1 year old. If your baby is almost 12 months old and the tear duct remains blocked, probing may be recommended. It may also be advised if your baby has developed a bluish, bulging area along the side of the nose (dacryocystocele) or is becoming increasingly irritable because of the blockage.
  • If your baby is 6 to 12 months old and has had repeated eye infections, scarring may have occurred that makes the opening unlikely to occur naturally.
  • Any medical procedure carries some risks. A rare but major risk of probing is that it may cause scarring of the eye's drainage system, which may lead to further blockage and increase the difficulty of opening the tear duct during a repeat procedure.
  • A blocked tear duct does not damage vision. Delaying or not having the procedure will not affect your child's ability to see.
  • When or whether to have probing is in part a personal decision. If you are uncomfortable with your baby's appearance or find it difficult to keep his or her eye clean, you may want to consider this procedure.

What should I know about the probing procedure for opening a blocked tear duct?

The probing procedure to open a blocked tear duct is usually not done in a baby younger than 6 months of age.

Probing may be done in a doctor's office using local anesthesia if your baby is younger than 1 month of age. For older babies, it is usually done in a surgical center or hospital using general anesthesia. A doctor may use his or her judgment about the need for anesthesia based on the child's age, weight, and temperament.

It may take several days for babies to heal after probing has been done.

Sometimes a probing procedure has to be repeated. Six weeks after surgery, in the doctor's office, the child's tear duct may be checked with a dye solution. If the duct is still blocked, massage and antibiotics are used for 4 to 6 more weeks. Then, if excessive tearing continues, the probing procedure is done again.

Symptoms may return for a short time after the probing procedure is done if the child gets an upper respiratory infection, such as a sinus infection or a cold.

How effective is the probing procedure for blocked tear ducts?

Most blocked tear ducts go away on their own by a baby's first birthday. If a child's tear duct has not opened by the time he or she is 12 to 13 months old, the probing procedure for blocked tear ducts is usually done. Probing successfully opens the duct in about 90 out of 100 babies who have blocked ducts.1

One study of children with blocked tear ducts showed that the probing procedure worked for:2

  • 89 out of 100 children who were probed at age 2.
  • 80 out of 100 children probed at age 3.
  • 71 out of 100 children probed at age 4.
  • 42 out of 100 children probed at age 5.

In most cases, when a young child's blockage is caused by a simple obstruction, probing works well. A simple obstruction usually occurs when a thin tissue covering the opening at the end of the tear duct does not open normally at or near birth. For more complicated types of obstructions, the probing procedure is successful about half the time.

What are the risks of having a probing procedure to open a blocked tear duct?

Every medical procedure has some risks, such as infection and bleeding. These risks are also present with a probing procedure to open blocked tear ducts.

One of the major but rare risks of a probing procedure is scarring of the drainage system between the eye and the nose (lacrimal duct). The scarring cannot be seen on the baby's face. But scarring may lead to further blockage, making it harder to open the tear duct during a repeat probing.

There are also risks associated with anesthesia.

  • Children usually need general anesthesia to keep them perfectly still during the procedure, but general anesthesia has greater risks than local anesthesia.
  • Local anesthesia has few or no risks, but the pain control is not as good. Also, babies need to be restrained to keep them very still during the procedure. Local anesthesia is not recommended for babies 1 month of age or older.

What are the risks of delaying or not having a probing procedure to open a blocked tear duct?

The risks of delaying or not having a probing procedure to open a blocked tear duct are minimal in young babies.

  • In very rare cases, a baby may develop serious infections of the areas surrounding the eye, including infection of the lining around the eye (pinkeye, or conjunctivitis), the skin around the eye (cellulitis), or the tear duct sac located inside and below the lower lid (dacryocystocele). These infections occur because tears well up behind the blockage and provide a place for bacteria to grow.
  • Repeated infections from blocked tear ducts may result in scarring of the tear duct (lacrimal duct). This complication is rare and is usually corrected by probing.

Another risk of delaying probing is that babies 1 month of age and older usually need general anesthesia to ensure that they remain very still during the procedure.

A child's vision is not impaired by a blocked tear duct, so delaying or not having the procedure to open a blocked tear duct will not change your child's ability to see.

If you need more information, see the topic Blocked Tear Ducts.

Your choices are:

  • Have a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct if your baby is 6 months to 1 year old.
  • Wait until your baby is 1 year old and then reconsider whether this procedure is needed.

The decision about whether to have a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct takes into account your personal feelings and the medical facts.

Probing procedure to open a blocked tear duct
Reasons to have a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct Reasons not to have a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct
  • Your child has turned 1 year old and still has a blocked tear duct.
  • Your child has had repeated eye infections, and scarring has made the natural opening of the duct unlikely.
  • Your child has developed a bluish, bulging area alongside the nose (dacryocystocele).
  • Your baby has become increasingly irritable because of the blockage.

Are there other reasons you might want to have a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct?

  • Most blocked tear ducts open without probing by the child's first birthday.
  • You would rather wait until your baby is 1 year old and then re-evaluate the need for the probing procedure.
  • Any procedure involving anesthesia carries some risk.
  • Although rare, there is a risk of scarring of the drainage system between the eye and nose, which can lead to further blockage.

Are there other reasons you might not want to have a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct?

These personal stories may help you make your decision.

Use this worksheet to help you make your decision. After completing the worksheet, you should have a better idea of how you feel about having a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct. Discuss the worksheet with your doctor.

Circle the answer that best applies to you.

It bothers me to see dried drainage or tears flowing from my baby's eye even when he or she is not crying. Yes No NA*
I'm uncomfortable when people see tears flowing down my baby's face or dried drainage in his or her eyes. It keeps me from taking my baby out. Yes No NA
I have a special event coming up in which my baby's appearance is important to me. Yes No Unsure
It's hard for me to see drainage in my baby's eyes, and sometimes his or her eyes stick together. It's difficult to keep his or her eyes clean. Yes No NA
My baby has had serious or frequent infections of the eyelids, tear ducts, or skin around the eyes due to the blockage. Yes No Unsure
It's difficult for me to apply antibiotic drops or ointment to my baby's eyes. Yes No Unsure
I am concerned about my child being given general anesthesia to have the probing procedure. Yes No Unsure
I am concerned about my child undergoing the probing procedure while he or she is awake. Yes No Unsure
I have insurance that will pay for the probing procedure. Yes No Unsure

*NA = Not applicable

Use the following space to list any other important concerns you have about this decision.

 

 

 

 

 

What is your overall impression?

Your answers in the above worksheet are meant to give you a general idea of where you stand on this decision. You may have one overriding reason to have or not have a probing procedure to open your baby's blocked tear duct.

Check the box below that represents your overall impression about your decision.

Leaning toward having the probing procedure

 

Leaning toward NOT having the probing procedure

         

Citations

  1. Olitsky SE, et al. (2007). Disorders of the lacrimal system. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed., chap. 624, p. 2587. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.

  2. Mannor GE, et al. (1999). Factors affecting the success of nasolacrimal duct probing for congenital nasolacrimal duct obstruction. American Journal of Ophthalmology, 127(5): 616–617.

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christopher J. Rudnisky, MD, FRCSC - Ophthalmology
Last Updated April 11, 2008

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: April 11, 2008
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

Today on WebMD

businesswoman wearing fun eyeglasses
Slideshow
Pink Eye Slideshow
Slideshow
 
Woman with itchy watery eyes
Slideshow
grilled salmon and spinach
Video
 

Understanding Stye
Article
human eye
Article
 
eye
Video
eye exam timing
Video
 

vision test
Tool
is vision correction surgery for you
Article
 
high tech contacts
Article
eye drop
Article