A baby boy crying.
Blocked tear ducts are common in babies, and there are simple treatments that can alleviate symptoms.

Does Your Baby Look Upset? It Could be a Blocked Tear Duct

Your baby can’t use words to tell you when there’s something wrong. Instead, they will often cry and scream, or make strange facial expressions.

If they look like they’re constantly on the verge of tears, you might be wondering if they are upset or if it’s a medical issue. Those fluid-filled eyes may be a sign of blocked tear ducts.

But what is a blocked tear duct in a baby? In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know.

What is a Blocked Tear Duct?

A normal tear duct is the length of the eye to the nose, and is the area where tears drain from the eye. When the tear duct becomes blocked with fluid, tears can’t drain properly and the duct becomes swollen, inflamed, and in more severe cases, infected.

It may sound worse than it is; blocked tear ducts are common and happen in around 10% of newborn babies. While it’s most common in babies, blocked tear ducts can happen at any age.

Babies’ eyes start making more tears when they’re between one and two months old. They may have had blocked tear ducts before then, but it may have been overlooked because their eyes don’t amp up tear production until a couple months after birth.

What Causes a Blocked Tear Duct?

The most common reason for tear duct blockage is that the thin tissue at the end of the tear duct fails to open normally, leaving the duct closed. The duct may not open because of underdeveloped openings in the corners of the eyes (where tears drain into the tear ducts).

Another reason is blockage of the lacrimal duct. This is the duct that carries tears from the corner of the eye to the nose. Blocked tear ducts may also be the result of infection, genetics, or an abnormal growth in the nasal bone that puts enough pressure on a tear duct to close it off.

How a Blocked Tear Duct Affects a Baby

Blocked tear ducts are usually a very minor issue that clear up on their own before your baby’s first birthday. You may wonder if there are any long-term effects of having blocked tear ducts: for the overwhelming majority, no.

There usually aren’t any lasting eye issues and the baby’s vision isn’t compromised in any way because of blocked tear ducts.

Symptoms of Blocked Tear Ducts

Since your baby can’t tell you what’s wrong, you’ll need to take visual cues to indicate that they have a blocked tear duct. Babies generally start to show symptoms within the first few days to the first few weeks after they’re born. Symptoms may include:

  • Constant watery eyes. The severity of this ranges to the eye just filling with tears to tears running down their cheek, even when the baby isn’t crying.
  • Eyelids sticking together. This doesn’t happen in all cases but may be a result of sticky fluid from the eye.
  • Yellow or white buildup in the corner of the eye. This may be mucus or pus.
  • Redness or swelling around the eyes or nose. The eye itself shouldn’t be red or swollen, but the area around it may be. If the eye is swollen, it may indicate infection in the eye’s drainage system. An infection may also have symptoms of fever, pain, mucus/pus in the eye, and more.
  • Certain weather makes symptoms worse. Your child may tear up more in wind, cold, or sunlight.

Symptoms may get worse after an upper respiratory infection like a sinus infection or cold. Always consult a doctor if your child’s eye looks infected or you think they need to be seen by a medical professional.

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Treatment for Babies with Blocked Tear Ducts

Most babies with blocked tear ducts do not require treatment as time will likely mend the issue. There are a few treatment options for babies whose tear ducts require some help to open up.

Antibiotic Drops

Pus in the eye means the eye is infected. You’ll want to see a doctor to confirm and they’ll likely suggest antibiotic eyedrops.

They’re simple to use, and you will need to clean the area with warm water and wet cotton balls before using the eyedrops. This removes obstacles for the medication which should clear up the infection within a few days.

Probing Procedure

If your baby is almost a year old and their tear duct is still blocked, your doctor may recommend a probing procedure. Other times this procedure is recommended is when a newborn shows signs of tear duct infection, your baby’s demeanor devolves because of blockages, or your baby has a bluish bulge along the nose.

Probing is ideal for simple blockages and opens the tear ducts in about 80% of affected babies. In this simple procedure, the specialist passes a probe through the blockage in order to open the tear duct.

Massage of the Lacrimal Sac

The lacrimal sac is where tears collect. It’s the inner corner of the lower eyelid. Your doctor may or advise you to carefully massage this area (but only do so if your physician tells you to do so!). Using a cotton swab in the inner corner of the eye, gently press upward to massage out fluid and mucus.

How to Prevent an Eye Infection from a Blocked Tear Duct

If your little one has a blocked tear duct, there are some actions you can take to minimize the chance of infection:

  • Keep their eyes clean by using warm water and a clean cotton ball or pad to wipe from the inner to the outer part of the eye
  • Keep your child out of wind, cold, and sunlight as best you can
  • Wash your hands before and after touching the eye area

Rest on the knowledge that blocked tear ducts are common amongst babies and they’re usually resolved without medical intervention. If your little one has tears in their eyes but don’t show any discomfort, it’s parenting business as usual for you. Don’t worry more than you need to with blocked tear ducts.