Why Do Older Eyes Seem to Produce More Tears?

elderly woman rubbing her eye
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Tears are essential for your eyes to work correctly. They wash away dust and particles that get in the eye and they keep the eye moist. In some cases, however, the eyes over-produce tears, resulting in "rheumy" eyes or an embarrassing teary-eyed appearance.

Causes of Watery Eyes

While infection, irritation, allergies and other causes for watery eyes exist, one of the most common causes of watery eyes and tearing is, oddly, dry eyes. The body senses that the eyes are dry, so it makes more tears.

You may go through periods of raw, dry eyes, followed by teary eyes. This is a common complaint of older people and is, surprisingly, referred to as dry eye syndrome.

A variety of things cause dry eye syndrome. In general, they are more irritating than dangerous. While some can be addressed medically, others are simply a result of aging.

The most likely cause is a problem with the Meibomian glands along the edge of your lower eyelids. These glands normal secrete an oily material that stops tears from evaporating too quickly between blinks. When they're not functioning normally, in a condition called Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD), you can get dry patches on your eyes. These become sore, and your eyes produce extra tears as a reflex.

Other causes of excessive tearing include:

  • Sagging lower eyelids: When the lower eyelid sags or rolls inward, it can be hard for tears to move in their proper path toward drainage ducts. This condition, called ectropion, can be resolved through minor surgery.
  • Inflammation or infection: An inflammation or infection of the edges of the eyelid can block drainage ducts, resulting in tearing eyes.
  • Blockage: Tear ducts can become blocked or narrowed. Minor surgery can resolve this.
  • Eye infections: Infection in the eye, such as pinkeye, can cause tearing.

More Serious Issues That Relate to Tearing

If your eyes are tearing and you also have some of the following symptoms, it's a good idea to visit your doctor:

  • Dry bulging eyes, which may be a sign of thyroid disease
  • Dry eyes with changes in vision, which could be a symptom of several potential problems
  • Dry eyes related to a new lump, which warrants prompt medical attention

What to Do?

There are a few things you can do to keep your eyes from tearing too much:

  • Protect your eyes: Wear sunglasses to keep out particles and protect from glare.
  • Use eye drops: If you notice your eyes are dry, use a few eye drops, the brands that are known as artificial tears or lubricating eye drops. Try to beat the body’s response to dry eyes.
  • See your eye doctor: Your eye doctor can check for clogged tear ducts and other explanations for watery eyes. She can also give you drops and other simple suggestions for improving your eye health.
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Article Sources

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  1. National Institutes of Health, National Eye Institute. How Tears Works. Updated July 16, 2019.

  2. National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging. Aging and Your Eyes. Reviewed January 31, 2017.

  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology, EyeSmart. Meibomian Glands.

  4. Chhadva P, Goldhardt R, Galor A. Meibomian Gland Disease: The Role of Gland Dysfunction in Dry Eye DiseaseOphthalmology. 2017;124(11S):S20–S26. doi:10.1016/j.ophtha.2017.05.031

  5. National Institutes of Health, National Eye Institute. At a glance: Dry Eye. Updated July 5, 2019.

  6. National Institutes of Health, National Eye Institute. Pink Eye. Updated August 3, 2019.

  7. American Thyroid Association. Graves' Eye Disease (Graves' Ophthalmopathy or Graves' Orbitopathy).