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One or both eyes may produce excess tears. We cry when we are happy and we cry when we are sad, but sometimes our eyes just keep producing tears to the extent that it is a nuisance, and in this case it is called epiphora, lacrimation or tearing. Alone or accompanied by other symptoms such as irritation or pain, lacrimation may occur for different reasons in children or adults.
It is usually a harmless phenomenon, but sometimes may require eye examinations and immediate medical attention. Read about triggering factors and what you can do to relieve watery eyes.
What are tears?
Tears are the eye’s natural defence and lubrication mechanism.
Lachrymal glands in the upper eyelid continuously secrete tears, which coat the eyeball and drain through the lachrymal punctum located in the corner of the eye near the nose. They then enter the tear ducts and drain down the back of the nose.
In normal situations, tear secretion and drainage are in balance to ensure proper hydration of the eyes and therefore protection of sight, but sometimes this mechanism can be upset. Unless caused by the presence of a foreign body, eye watering is considered abnormal when it is excessive or gets in the way of your daily life. In such cases, it is the result of two phenomena:
You do not usually need to see a doctor or an ophthalmologist if you have watery eyes. However, if you experience certain symptoms, you should seek medical advice:
Why do we get watery eyes?
An eye that waters excessively may indicate an eye condition. The cause must be identified so that the right treatment can be prescribed. Correct diagnosis requires analysis of the accompanying symptoms.
The most common causes of watery eyes in both adults and children are described below:
Watery eyes in children can also be caused by congenital glaucoma, a rare but serious condition that can lead to blindness.
Watery eyes in the elderly can be caused by age-related constriction of the tear ducts, and also by systemic medication (e.g. : anti-depressants).
Watery eyes may be the only symptom, occurring in the morning when you wake up, from time to time or throughout the day, or may be accompanied by other clinical symptoms:
Establishing the presence or absence of other clinical symptoms is essential for reaching a diagnosis:
Whatever the cause, if the accompanying symptoms do not get better, or rapidly worsen, it is essential to seek medical advice.
How should watery eyes be treated?
Watery eyes are usually harmless and do not require any special treatment. However, if your eyes water excessively or persistently, or if you experience any other accompanying symptoms, you should see an ophthalmologist as a matter of urgency. He or she will ask you some questions and perform an eye examination.
Medical advice should be sought if your eyes water excessively, or without apparent reason, bother you or are accompanied by other symptoms. The ophthalmologist will then be able to identify and treat the cause of abnormal eye watering.
Once the ophthalmologist has ruled out the most common causes, he or she may then perform more detailed examinations, such as inserting a probe into the punctum to see if there is any obstruction, or imaging techniques (radiography, scan, nasal endoscopy).
The cause of excessive eye watering must then be treated with medication, and by recommending specific interventions:
Some causes of watery eyes, particularly obstructed tear ducts in babies or toddlers, require medical intervention. In such cases, the ophthalmologist inserts a tiny probe into the tear duct to unblock it and restore normal physiological drainage of tears.
In adults, surgery may be necessary to create a new drainage duct for tears.
Simple, natural ways to soothe watery eyes
To supplement medical treatments or in mild cases, some simple solutions can help alleviate the discomfort of watery eyes:
But take note, these natural solutions are only supplements to treatment and must not take precedence over medical advice if watery eyes persist.
(1) Bruno Fayet, Emmanuel Racy, « Larmoiement : que faire ? », », La Revue du Praticien. Médecine Générale, Vol. 24, n° 838, mars 2010, pp. 237-8.
(2). Améli, Corps étranger dans l'œil [en ligne]. Available at: https://www.ameli.fr/assure/sante/urgence/corps-etrangers/oeil.
(3). Michel Tazartes, « Larmoiement du sujet âgé : les causes sont multiples », La Revue du Praticien. Médecine Générale, Vol. 33, n° 1018, March 2019, pp. 249-50.