A blocked or clogged tear duct is a fairly common condition in infants, although it may also occur for a number reasons in older kids and adults. People often think that a clogged duct means they can’t produce tears, but in fact this isn’t true. Usually, a blockage means that the eyes cannot properly drain tears. This means the eyes may have excessive tearing, get swollen and become subject to frequent infection.
Someone who has a clogged tear duct may have symptoms such as bloody looking tears, crust or stickiness around the affected eye, swelling of the eyelid on the inside corner, and frequent eye infections and redness. If this condition persists, especially if the bottom eyelid or the inside corner of the eye is swollen, a blocked duct is likely the cause.
In infants, the most common cause of a clog is lack of development of the tear duct or even a small bit of tissue over the affected duct. Sometimes, people of any age have abnormal structure of the face or head, which prevents tear ducts from draining properly. Other causes include infection, cysts or tumors, using eye medication (though rarely), aging, and facial injury. Sometimes, there’s little need to find the specific cause because it’s obvious, and other times, a healthcare professional may need to look for a cause.
It used to be common to do surgery on infants with a clogged tear duct in order to open the duct. Medical professionals now know that this is usually unnecessary because the duct often opens on its own in a few months. Parents may be instructed to do special kinds of massage of the eye to facilitate opening.
In adults and children who have a clogged duct, surgery may be the most common method of treating the condition, though many healthcare professionals wait to see if the condition clears on its own. Surgery can involve a variety of different methods, and one of the most common is dacryocystorhinostomy. In this procedure, surgeons create a new pathway for tear drainage that goes around the blocked duct, and may leave tiny tubes in this passage to facilitate drainage. These are usually removed about six months later.
There are some risks to having a clogged tear duct. It is much easier for the eyes to become infected, and these blockages can interfere with vision and feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, most people can’t really prevent these blockages, except to try to avoid eye infections like pink eye through good handwashing practices. It’s also important for people to keep their hands off their faces, especially in public, since this is the easiest way to get things like pink eye that might create these blockages. Individuals should also wear protective glasses for any tasks that have the potential to cause eye injury.