Blocked Tear Ducts in Babies and Toddlers


By Lisa Pecos

Blocked tear ducts are common in babies, with as many as a third of infants being born with a blocked tear duct or underdeveloped tear duct system. Fortunately, over 90 percent of cases clear up before the first birthday and most requite little treatment, if any.

How Tears Work

Tears are an important part of eye health and help to keep the eyes clean and moist. Tears are produced by the lacrimal glands and drain through a tiny opening called the punctum, which is located in the corner or the eye into the lacrimal sac. They then travel down through the tear duct into the nose and throat. When the tear duct is blocked, it prevents tears from flowing to the nose. This can happen in one or both eyes at the same time.

How to Tell If Your Baby Has a Blocked Tear Duct

If your baby has a blocked tear duct, you may notice:

  • Wet eyelashes or extra tears that overflow onto the lashes and cheeks
  • Sticky or crusty eyelashes, especially in the morning
  • A red eye or eyes

If there is an infection present, your baby may have swelling or redness by the nose.

If your baby experiences any of these, a trip to the doctor is in order to rule out infection and find the cause of the symptoms.

Treating a Blocked Tear Duct

Your doctor will recommend treatment based on your baby’s specific case. These may include:

  • Massaging. Gently massaging the lacrimal sac a few times throughout the day can help open the clogged tear duct.
  • Lukewarm compresses. Applying lukewarm compresses may help open the tear duct.
  • Antibiotics. If your baby has an infection, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics ointment or drops. This treats the infection but doesn’t open the tear duct; you will need to continue to massage the area.

Until your baby’s tear duct blockage clears, you’ll need to clean out the discharge from his or her eyes regularly. This can be done using a clean cotton ball dipped in warm water or even saline solution found in drugstores.

In some cases, treatment fails to open the tear duct. If other options fail after at least 6 months your doctor may recommend surgery. Surgery may also be recommended if your baby experiences repeated infections because of the blocked tear duct.

Surgery for a blocked tear duct is performed by an ophthalmologist on an outpatient basis. Though there are a few different surgical procedures available to fix a blocked tear duct, the most commonly used procedure is a surgical probe, which is successful in 85 to 95 percent of babies 12 months of age and under. The procedure can also be repeated if it isn’t doesn’t work right away. The procedure takes approximately 10 minutes.

Other surgical procedures are recommended for older children or for babies whose blockage is especially difficult.