Most of your tear fluid flows from glands above each eye. Tears drain through small openings at the inner corners of your eyelids, accumulate in small sacs and then flow into your nose through tubes called nasolacrimal ducts. According to the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, tear duct blockage affects more than 5 percent of babies during their first year of life, usually due to delayed maturation of the nasolacrimal ducts. In older children and adults, causes of tear duct blockage include infections, nasal injuries and certain medications, among others. Home remedies might help clear a blocked tear duct in infants. However, older children and adults usually require medical treatment for this condition.
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Tear Duct Massage
Blocked tear ducts in babies usually resolve within the first year of life as the nasolacrimal ducts mature and open. Some doctors recommend a special type of eye massage to encourage opening of the duct. Using a cotton-tipped swab, gentle pressure is applied to the nose next to the eye. The swab is gently stroked downward along the nose. This is repeated for 10 strokes and performed twice daily, in the morning and evening. If your fingers are small enough, you can use your index fingers instead of a cotton swab. Just be sure to wash your hands with soap and water before performing this massage technique on your baby.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology states that this type of massage is not effective for adults with a blocked tear duct as the underlying causes are different in adults versus infants.
Some healthcare providers recommend application of a warm compress held against the inside corner of the eye before performing tear duct massage. In theory, this could potentially help fluid flow through the blocked tear duct, although there has been no research to prove warm compresses are beneficial. If you opt to use a warm compress before performing tear duct massage, just dampen a clean washcloth with lukewarm water.
Next Steps, Warnings and Precautions
With a blocked tear duct, the eye appears excessively watery and tears might run down the face. Some whitish discharge might accumulate along the eyelids but the eyes appear otherwise normal. If you or your baby develop these symptoms, see your doctor to determine whether a blocked tear duct or another condition is the culprit. As most babies outgrow this condition, watchful waiting -- with or without tear duct massage -- is generally all that is needed.
Medical evaluation is necessary for older children and adults who develop a blocked tear duct to determine the underlying cause and the best treatment option. Most adults with a blocked tear duct require a procedure or surgery to correct the problem.
Call your doctor right away if you notice redness or swelling of the eyes or lids, or pus-like discharge as these symptoms usually signal an infection. Also contact your healthcare provider without delay if you experience tearing along with eye pain, blurred vision or other vision changes.
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.