What Are Watery Eyes?

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When the tears won’t stop flowing, the cause isn’t always emotion. Tears are the maintenance fluid of the eye, and problems with this system can cause your eyes to water without any apparent reason. If you have watery eyes, also known as excessive eye watering and epiphora, the problem is either overproduction or underdrainage of tears. Environmental factors and allergies can also result in watery eyes. More seriously, infection can be the reason why your eyes won't stop tearing up.

tears

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How Do Tears Work?

The tear system is controlled by the lacrimal glands. These glands—one for each eye—are located on the outer edge of the upper eye, beneath the eyelid. These glands produce tears, a salty fluid that lubricates the eye with each blink. Normally, these glands make about 1.2 microliters of tears each minute, with the eyelids spreading this fluid evenly over the surface of the eye with each blink. The moisture from tears can prevent damage to the cornea from drying and becoming inflamed.

Up to 20% of the tears that are made evaporate, and the orbicularis muscle pumps the remainder of the tears into the lacrimal puncta, the pouch-like bulge you see at the inner corner of the eye. From the punta, excess tears flow through the lacrimal ducts to the nasolacrimal duct and out the nasal cavity. This system has a capacity of 8 microliters, so too much tear production or insufficient drainage can result in watery eyes.

lacrimal gland anatomy

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Watery Eyes Symptoms

The primary symptom of epiphora is watery eyes. A number of other signs can also occur, including:

  • Sharp pain
  • Dry eyes
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Irritation
  • Soreness
  • Blurry vision
  • Light sensitivity

If the watery eyes are caused by allergies, symptoms will also include runny nose and sneezing.

Causes

Problems that cause watery eyes fall into three categories:

  • Too much tear production
  • A problem with the composition of the tears
  • Poor drainage of excess tears

A host of problems can lead to watery eyes in these categories, and your doctor will need to examine the surface of your eye and its duct system to pinpoint the origin of the issue.

Some conditions that can lead to watery eyes include:

  • Obstruction: Your tears flow through a system of tubes and ducts that carry excess tears away from your eyes. When any part of this system becomes blocked or plugged, tears can't drain properly and lead to a buildup and watery eyes. Blockages can occur in the eye itself, in the punta, or in the lower drainage system. Blockages in the tear duct can lead to an infection called dacryocystitis. Conditions like sarcoidosis and lymphoma and conjunctivitis (pink eye) can also cause blockage. Age-related changes like narrowing of the punctal openings are another possible cause
  • Dry eyes: Dryness is irritating to the eyes, and can stimulate the eye to produce more tears. Dry eyes are a condition all on their own, but dryness that leads to irritation and overproduction of tears can also be caused by allergies, infections, certain medications such as acne medications and birth control pills, or chronic health conditions like arthritis and diabetes. Smoking, windy or dry environments, and sunlight can also lead to dry eyes
  • Tear chemistry: In some cases, watery eyes can be caused by an imbalance in the chemistry of your tears or other substances that lubricate the eye. Oils that line the eyelids can be out of balance, causing problems when it comes to the formation of the tear fluid. Glands that make oils along your eyelid can produce too much oil or become blocked, preventing tears from reaching the drainage system and causing excessive eye watering
  • Facial nerve dysfunction: A number of nerves run through the eyes and the face. When there is injury or damage to these nerves, like in cases of facial palsy, the pumps and mechanisms that move tears through the duct system can become weak. When the pumps fail to move excessive tears through the drainage system, they can accumulate in the eye and result in watery eyes
  • Allergies: Allergies like hay fever are another common cause of watery eyes

Diagnosis

The first step in diagnosing the cause of watery eyes is by collecting a thorough history and conducting an eye exam. Aside from visually examining your eye, your optometrist or ophthalmologist will also want to know about:

  • Medications you take
  • Any injuries that may have impacted your eyes
  • Chronic diseases
  • Allergies
  • Environmental exposures to chemicals or other irritants

Additional tests your doctor may perform include:

  • Dye disappearance test: For this test, your doctor will drop a dye into the corner of your eye. Do not wipe it away or touch your eye. After five minutes, the dye should be cleared from the eye. If dye remains, this will indicate a possible blockage somewhere in the drainage system. Patterns of dye, and observing how well the dye drains—checked by swabbing the inside of the nose—can give your doctor additional information about the drainage of tears from your eyes
  • Snap and distraction test: During this test, your eyelid is pulled down and away from the eye. Your doctor will observe how far the lid can be pulled and how long it takes to return to its original position. This will provide clues to whether your tearing comes from a problem with the eyelid function itself
  • Lacrimal drainage system irrigation: This test is the most invasive, but your doctor will use a topical anesthesia for comfort. For this test, water is inserted into the punctum at the corner of the eye, and a small syringe tip is gently inserted. The tip will move easily into the punctum if there is no obstruction. Next, saline or water is pushed through the syringe. The fluid should flow to the nose or throat without disruption. If the fluid doesn't flow through the drainage system freely, or if the fluid backs up, this is a sign of a blockage or obstruction somewhere. If drainage or mucus comes out with the fluid, this is in indication that part of the drainage system may be infected

When to See a Doctor

You should call your doctor immediately if you have watery eyes with:

  • Reduced vision
  • Pain around your eyes
  • A foreign body sensation

Treatment

Treatment for watery eyes focuses on resolving the underlying cause. If the trigger for your watery eyes is an allergy or environmental irritant, antihistamines or improving the air quality around you may help.

In some cases, chronic diseases like Sjogren's syndrome are to blame. This disease in particular impacts how the body creates moisture. Treating chronic diseases like this can help alleviate the symptoms, like dry eyes, that come with it.

If an obstruction or infection is the cause of your watery eyes, your doctor may be able to perform a procedure to clear the blockage by gently inserting a small instrument through the punctum, like during the lacrimal drainage irrigation test. If an infection is present, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

In severe cases, surgery may be required to clear large obstructions or even rebuild the lacrimal drainage system. This procedure is called dacryocystorhinostomy, and is done under general anesthesia. A surgeon will make an incision near the nose and create a new drainage system. A small tube will be inserted and left in place for several months as the surgical area heals.

Prognosis

Generally, treatment for watery eyes is successful. Clearing obstructions can resolve the problem. Treating underlying issues like allergies will also help alleviate this problem. In some cases, no cause is ever found, and you could be left with a condition known as functional epiphora. There are treatments that can help, such as Botox injections and surgery, but the success rate of these treatments varies widely.

Coping

There are a number of things you can do to help relieve watery eyes:

  • Eye drops may help soothe irritated eyes, or relieve dryness that leads to watery eyes. Choose lubricating products rather than solutions that are marketed for reducing red eye, which can cause irritation
  • If your watery eyes are caused by allergies, reduce your exposure to allergens. When pollen counts are high, stay indoors as much as possible, close the windows, and run the air conditioner. It may also mean keeping a pet out of the house, installing high-efficiency air filters in your home, removing household items that collect dust, covering mattresses and pillows with finely woven fabrics that prevent dust mites, using synthetic-fiber pillows, and installing dehumidifiers in basements and other damp rooms to prevent mold
  • For blockages, your doctor may recommend a warm compress. They may ask you to put a warm, wet, clean washcloth on the eye a few times a day. This could help open up the blocked punctum and let any fluid inside drain out in just a few days or longer. 

A Word From Verywell

Watery eyes are a common problem, but not always a serious one. Most causes of watery eyes like infection can be fixed. Over-the-counter eye drops, warm compresses, or allergy treatments may help with the symptoms of excessive eye watering. If eye irritation affects your vision or is accompanied by pain, you should see a doctor.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. The Ophthalmologist. Here Come the Waterworks: Working up patients with excessive tearing. Updated September 29, 2017.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Tear System.

  4. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Blocked Tear Duct Cases. Published October 4, 2015.

  5. Berkeley Wellness. Coping with Watery Eyes. Published June 18, 2019.