Blocked tear ducts are a common concern of parents about their newborn babies. They present to the pediatrician with a child who appears to have tears spilling over onto their cheeks without evidence of crying.
The child may also have mucus type material on the edges of the eyelid. When parents see this mucus, oftentimes they believe that the baby has pink eye (conjunctivitis). Don’t panic! It’s not pink eye, it’s just blocked tear ducts.
Normally tears are produced by the lacrimal gland that is located just over the eye. The eye lid helps the eye to move the tears across the eye. The tears lubricate the eye and provide protection. Sometimes the nasolacrimal ducts aren’t completely open at the time of birth which is what causes the obstruction.
How Tear Ducts Work
Your baby is hungry and starts to cry. The baby’s eyes well up with tears. Normally the tear ducts act as the eye’s drainage system, so the tears that don’t spill over to the baby’s face are drained away. The only evidence that the baby was crying may be little salt stains on their face.
Now, when when those ducts are blocked instead of the tears being drained away, they sit like a puddle on the eye. When this puddle dries out it leaving clumps of yellow discharge in the eye.
Sometimes people get confused by what it means to have a blocked tear duct. Here’s what it doesn’t mean:
- It doesn’t mean that they don’t make tears.
- It also doesn’t mean that they make too many tears.
What it does mean is that the drainage system is blocked or closed. Just as your sink will overflow if water is flowing into it when the drain is closed, the baby’s eyes will become flooded with their tears if the duct is blocked.
Things to Know About Blocked Tear Ducts
The good news is that this condition happens to only approximately 20% of newborns. And when it does happen you’ll usually notice that:
- It can affect either one or both eyes.
- Sometimes these blocked ducts aren’t immediately evident at birth.
- Many times it isn’t noticed until the baby is a month old.
- Blocked ducts often open up themselves within the first few weeks or months of life.
Treatment for Newborn Blocked Tear Ducts
Treatment for newborn blocked tear ducts are mostly a wait and see treatment. Most of these conditions resolve by the time the child has reached 10 months of age as their body grows. The blockage appears to be most often caused by a membrane (thin skin) that remains over the tear duct from birth and which opens as the baby grows.
Sometimes professionals advise the parents to massage the area over the tear duct to help open it enough to accept most of the tears that are produced and thereby decrease the symptoms. This massage is thought to help break this membrane over the duct. Make sure that you check the laccrimal gland to see if it is swollen before you begin. It isn’t swollen the massage probably isn’t necessary.
If this condition has resolved with massage then a probing with a metal instrument under general anesthesia to break the membrane may be necessary and cures about 90% of those who don’t resolve spontaneously. In the rare instance that this doesn’t resolve with the probing then another surgical placement of a balloon to stretch the duct or the creation of a new passage may be necessary.
Blocked Tear Ducts Aren’t Just for Babies
Anyone can have a blocked tear duct. Older children and adults usually have this problem after a nose injury, a tear duct or sinus infection. These conditions can cause scarring of the nasolacrimal duct and obstruction which leads to the blocked duct.
If you experience a blocked tear duct you should be careful with your facial hygiene. You definitely don’t want to risk a secondary infection caused by the accumulated mucus. Keeping your face clean while the eye is being treated is the best way to avoid this problem.
And, as with all medical issues, it’s best to consult your physician for specific care instructions for this problem. Our bodies are unique and we need to seek out customized remedies and advice from a trusted eye doctor, like Dr. Kleinsorge. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us for an appointment.
- Childrens Hospital Boston: Blocked Tear Ducts in Infants
- MayoClinic: Blocked Tear Duct
- BabyCenter: Why Do my Newborn’s Eyes Tear up and Get Crusty
- Seattle Children’s: Tear Duct Blocked
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Conjunctivitis
- MedlinePlus: Neonatal Conjunctivitis
- Roswell Pediatric Center: Blocked Tear Duct
- University of Michigan: Blocked Tear Ducts
- University of Wisconsin: Blocked Tear ducts in Children