Why Is My Tear Duct Blocked?

Can’t stop crying?

Tiny passages called tear ducts run down the sides of your nose and drain tears from your eyes. These tubes can get blocked in any part of the duct.

It can happen for different reasons, including the shape of the ducts, an infection -- even your age. Some of the most common causes are:

A Problem With the Duct

Babies are sometimes born with a blocked tear duct. In some cases, the duct or drainage system doesn't form correctly in the womb. Conditions like Down syndrome that change the shape of the skull and face can make the ducts narrower than usual.

More often, the cause is a thin piece of tissue that covers the tear duct in the womb. It doesn't open up before birth like it should. About 5% of infants are born with this, and it stops tears from flowing out of their eyes. This covering usually goes away on its own a month or two after the baby is born.

Age

Though you can get a blocked duct any time, they're more common in middle age and older.

As you age, the tiny holes, or puncta, that drain tears out of your eyes, get smaller. This narrowing slows the flow of fluid from your eyes into the tear ducts.

Women over age 40 are most likely to get blocked tear ducts, which may be due to hormone changes.

Infection

An infection in your eyes or nose can cause swelling. This presses on and narrows the tear duct.

Bacteria, fungi, and viruses like herpes can all make the area around your eyes and nose swell and block the ducts.

A blockage in your tear duct can also lead to an infection when bacteria multiply in the narrowed tube.

Sinus Problems

If you have ongoing sinusitis, you get swollen tissues in your sinuses, which can form scars that block the tear ducts. Sinus surgery can also lead to a blockage by damaging the tear ducts or the holes that drain to them.

Injuries

Any injury to your nose or eyes can cause swelling and scar tissue. Sometimes, little pieces of bone block the tear ducts.

A broken nose or surgery to the nose, sinuses, or other parts of the face could also lead to a blocked tear duct.

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Growths in the Nose or Face

If you have allergies, you may have little rounded growths called polyps in the lining of your nose. These growths can press down on the tear ducts.

Glaucoma Medication

Sometimes, glaucoma treatments affect the tear ducts. Certain eye drops may cause the conjunctiva in the eye and the tear ducts to swell.

Cancer Treatments

A few cancer treatments are linked to blocked tear ducts. For example, during radioactive iodine treatment for thyroid cancer, the tear ducts may absorb iodine and become swollen.

Docetaxel -- a type of chemotherapy used to treat breast cancer and non-small cell lung cancer -- can also affect the tear ducts.

Finding the Cause

If your eyes are irritated and runny, your doctor will do an exam and ask questions to help pinpoint the cause. Once you know what's causing your excess tearing, you can start on a treatment to relieve it.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Alan Kozarsky, MD on August 11, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Blocked Tear Duct Causes."

American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus: "Nasolacrimal Duct Obstruction."

American Rhinologic Society: "Epiphora (Excessive Tearing)."

Better Health Channel: "Eyes -- Blocked Tear Duct."

Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital: "Nasolacrimal Duct Obstruction."

Kashkouli, Mohsen Bahmani. Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, May-June 2008.

Medscape: "Obstruction Nasolacrimal Duct."

Thyroid Cancer Survivors' Association, Inc.: "Radioactive Iodine (RAI)."

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