Tears are necessary for the lubrication of the eyes and to wash away particles and foreign substances in or around the eyes. Excessive tearing can result in watery eyes, however, which is not good. The medical term for watery eyes is epiphora, which simply means increased tearing. Epiphora has many causes, and there are many ways to alleviate the symptoms.
Epiphora happens one of two ways: either the tear drainage duct is not functioning properly or the eye is producing more tears than necessary. The production and drainage of tears is a function of the lacrimal drainage system. The tears that bathe the surface of the eye are produced by the lacrimal gland. This gland is located above and behind the upper eyelid. When we blink, the eyelids push the tears across the eye’s surface, causing them to collect in the lower inner corner of the eye. They then travel through the puncta and into the lacrimal sac before entering into the nasolacrimal duct. The nasolacrimal duct connects the eye and nose. Once the tears enter the duct, they travel down the nose and into the throat. In the meantime, new tears are produced by the lacrimal gland, and the process begins again.
You may have noticed that infants have unusually teary eyes. This is because newborns may not have fully developed tear ducts. It takes weeks for a infant to begin producing tears, and it may be several weeks before their nasolacrimal canal, which contains the duct, opens up. Most babies’ tear ducts open up within the first year of life. Parents of babies whose ducts are not fully opened by then (a condition known as dacryostenosis, which affects approximately 30 percent of infants) are encouraged to massage the skin overlying the tear ducts to help speed up the process. If this does not work, an ophthalmologist can perform a probing procedure to open the ducts and stop the watery eyes.
It is important to remember that excessive tearing is not an emergency. Yes it can be annoying, but it can also be treated easily.
Watery Eyes Symptoms
Additional symptoms can accompany watery eyes. Such symptoms include:
- Burning eyes
- Itchy eyes
- Foreign sensation in eyes
- Decreased visual acuity
- Swollen eyelid
- Red, bloodshot eyes
- Eye Pain, especially if trauma has occurred
- Crusting around the eyes, which signifies the duct is blocked
Although tearing is not an emergency, contact your doctor immediately if the tearing is accompanied by red eyes, excess discharge, pain in the eye, or tenderness around the nose or sinuses, or if the tearing has been excessive for a prolonged period. Each of these symptoms indicates a more serious problem.
Causes of Watery Eyes
As stated above, watery eyes can be due to one of two problems: either the eye is producing more tears than necessary, or the tear duct that drains the tears is not functioning properly. There are many possible causes for increased tears, which are a symptom in a majority of eye-related conditions and diseases. But once you find the culprit, treatment can be pursued. Causes of watery eyes can include:
- Dry Eye Syndrome
- Clogged tear ducts
- Environmental irritants such as chemicals, smog, hot wind, bright lights, blowing dust, and airborne allergens
- Foreign bodies
- Allergies to mold, dust, and dander
- Eyelids turning either inward or outward
Ironically, one of the biggest causes of watery eyes is dry eye syndrome. Dry eye syndrome causes eye discomfort, which triggers the production of tears. Your doctor will probably check to see whether you suffer from dry eye before moving on to other tests.
Diagnosing Watery Eyes
To diagnose watery eyes, an eye doctor will ask you questions about your medical history, symptoms, and lifestyle. Your doctor will give you a thorough eye exam and possibly a physical exam in order to determine the cause of your watery eyes. He or she may also take a culture of a tear specimen. Once the cause of the watery eyes is identified, a treatment plan can be created.
Treatment for Watery Eyes
First, it is very important to consider what is causing the excess tear production in your eyes before seeking any form of treatment. Knowing the cause can save you money and time. Artificial tears can help re-wet your eyes if they are dry or burning. If your eyes are irritated or itchy, the excess tear production could be the result of an allergy. Over-the-counter topical anti-allergy drops like Zaditor or Alaway could be the solution, or you can see a doctor who will prescribe prescription topical anti-allergy drops such as Lastacaft or Bepreve for your watery eyes and other allergy-related symptoms.
If you are experiencing discharge from your eyes, the cause could be a blocked tear duct or eyelid problem, and your doctor may want to do a drainage procedure or similar surgery to alleviate the symptoms. Improper eyelid positions can also be fixed rather easily with minor surgery. If an infection is to blame, antibiotics can be prescribed.
Many older people experience drier eyes as they age, which can lead to an increase in tear production. Older people should see their eye-care providers more often so that any problems they experience can be caught before they turn into something worse. Regardless of your age, it is wise to protect your eyes at all times. If you spend time outside, wear sunglasses to shield your eyes from the UV rays, to protect against particles and airborne debris, and to reduce glare.
Children and infants can also experience extra tear production. Some infants are born with a narrow tear duct. If this happens, chances are the duct will widen itself within the first year of life and the watery eyes will stop. Antibiotics can be given to children who are suffering from eye infections. Probing is also possible for children and infants. The procedure is painless and is meant to open up the blockage.
Prognosis for Watery Eyes
The outlook for watery eyes is typically good. Once the cause is determined, treatment can begin. In most cases, watery eyes clear up within hours or days. Healing times will vary depending on the type of treatment selected. For example, watery eyes due to allergies may stop within an hour if antihistamines are taken, but if surgery is needed, it may be weeks before the problem is resolved.
Preventing Watery Eyes
Because watery eyes are usually caused by a problem with the lacrimal system, it is important to take steps to ensure that the system never breaks down. Here are some tips to help you prevent watery eyes:
- Protect your eyes from sunlight, injury, and burns by wearing protective eyewear such as sunglasses, goggles, or a face-mask.
- Stay away from known allergens or take precautions before entering an environment that contains a known allergen (e.g., take an oral antihistamine thirty minutes prior to entering the environment).
- Eat a well-balanced diet throughout your life.
- Do not touch or rub your eyes when they become itchy and irritated.
- Avoid coming into contact with people who have viral or bacterial infections. If you have a viral or bacterial infection, take precautions to avoid spreading your infection. Sterilize common household items, wash your hands frequently, and do not share linens, make-up, or eye drops.
- Wash your hands frequently to avoid the spread of germs.
- As you get older, visit your eye doctor more frequently for routine eye exams.
Talking to Your Eye Doctor
Here are some questions to ask your eye doctor about watery eyes:
- Which over-the-counter products can treat my watery eyes?
- What is causing my watery eyes? Which conditions have you ruled out?
- What treatment options do I have? If those fail, what are my next options?
- How long will it be before I get relief?
- At what point should I consider this a medical emergency?
Did you know … blockage of tear ducts in infants is common, affecting 6 percent of all newborns?
- J. DiGirolamo, MD “The Big Book of Family Eye Care” (Basic Health Publications, 2011) 90-91
- J. Weizer, MD; J. Stein, MD, MS “Reader’s Digest Guide to Eye Care” (Quantum Publishing, 2009) 100-104