Watering eyes is when tears overflow and run down your cheek for no apparent reason. It's caused by too many tears or tears that don't drain away properly.
Your eyes need tears to keep them moist and healthy. Tears are produced by tear glands (lacrimal glands), which are underneath your upper eyelids, in the corner furthest away from your nose. When you blink, the tears from your tear glands are spread thinly all over the surface of your eye.
Tears drain away through tiny openings called puncta on the edge of your eyelids, near your nose. From here, they run through tear ducts into the back of your nose.
If there is a problem anywhere in this process, it can cause your eye to water and tears to run down your cheek.
The main symptom of watering eyes is when you produce tears without there being a cause, for example, when you're not upset or emotional. You may only have the odd trickle down your cheek or tears may start rolling down your face. Your eyes may water more when you're outside in the wind or cold weather. Other symptoms may include:
Watering eyes are caused either by conditions that make you produce too many tears, or by conditions that stop your tears draining away properly. If you're producing too many tears this is called lacrimation. If your tears aren't draining away properly this is called epiphora.
There are a number of conditions that can cause you to produce too many tears including:
Your eyes have a drainage system of tear ducts to take away your tears. If this drainage system becomes blocked or isn't working properly, it can cause your eyes to water. Tear ducts can become blocked if they are infected or inflamed, as you get older or because of a blockage at the point where the tears drain out in your nose.
A blockage can lead to a condition called dacryocystitis. This is when an infection develops and causes a swelling in the corner of your eye near your nose, which can sometimes be painful. Injuries can cause scar tissue that can also block tear ducts. Some babies are born with blocked tear ducts, which usually get better in their first year.
If your tear duct openings aren't in the right place, for example if you have a condition called ectropion where your eyelid droops away from your eye, then your tears may not drain away properly.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
If you have any discharge or pus coming from your eye, your GP may take a swab of it to see if you have an infection.
Your GP may refer you to an ophthalmologist, a doctor who specialises in eye health, including eye surgery. He or she may arrange for you to have further tests.
The type of treatment you have will depend on what is causing your eye to water. If your symptoms are mild, you may not need any treatment. Babies that are born with blocked tear ducts may not need any treatment.
Keep the area around your eye and eyelids clean and clear of any crusting or stickiness. If you place a warm compress over your eyelid for a few minutes, it may help to ease your symptoms. Soak a towel in warm (not hot) water to make the compress. A cold compress will help to reduce swelling in your eyelids.
If you have a mild infection, your GP may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointment, or antibiotic tablets. If you have dry eyes, eye drops called artificial tears may help to keep the surface of your eye healthy – this will stop you producing excessive tears and your eye from watering.
This is a procedure to open up and clear any narrowing of the tear duct openings in your eyelids. Your ophthalmologist will put a few drops of a local anaesthetic into your eye. This completely blocks pain from your eye and you will stay awake during the procedure. He or she will then use a fine stainless steel pencil-shaped instrument to open up the openings of your tear ducts in your eyelids.
Sometimes the blockage is further down in your tear duct. Lacrimal syringing can be used to help determine where the blockage is. This is carried out under local anaesthesia. Your ophthalmologist may put some yellow dye into your eye before syringing – this can help him or her decide whether the tear ducts are blocked.
Your ophthalmologist will then put a very thin metal tube into your tear duct. This is connected to a syringe of salt water. He or she will wash the salt water through your tear duct to help remove the blockage or determine its location. When your doctor is doing this you may be able to taste salt in your mouth or feel it in your nose.
If your tear ducts are blocked and other treatments don't work, you may be offered surgery to unblock the ducts and widen the tear duct that opens in your nose. The operation is called a dacryocystorhinostomy, or DCR. You can have the operation under local or general anaesthesia, which means you will be asleep during the operation. You may need to have special X-rays of your tear ducts before your surgery to help establish exactly where the blockage is and whether the surgery is likely to work.
A DCR operation can be done in two different ways. Your surgeon can get to your tear duct by inserting special instruments up through your nose, or he or she can make a cut in the skin at the side of your nose. Whatever the method, your surgeon will make a small hole in the bone between the tear sac and your nose. He or she will place small tubes in the hole to help it heal properly and to make sure the hole stays open. Your surgeon will take these tubes out a few weeks later.
Your surgeon may prescribe antibiotic eye drops and tablets to take after your operation, to help prevent an infection.
Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2013.
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.