If you discover that your child has watery eyes, it could be due to several reasons. This symptom, called epiphora, can be caused by blocked tear ducts, infections, and allergies.
The different causes of watery eyes in babies and toddlers require different treatments. Some require minimal action on the part of the parents, while other treatments include prescription medications or even surgery.
You should always see your child’s pediatrician if you’re concerned about your child’s watery eyes.
Watery eyes can be a symptom of numerous medical conditions. A likely cause of watery eyes in infants can be blocked tear ducts. These often resolve on their own.
Blocked tear duct
Blocked tear ducts occur when tears cannot move from the corners of the eyelids into the ducts lining your nose. This causes tears to back up in the eye. Many infants experience this because the end of the tear duct’s membrane does not open, or because the opening is too narrow at birth. The condition resolves itself in 90 percent of infants by their first birthday.
Other causes of blocked tear ducts are less common but include:
You may see symptoms of a blocked tear duct right after birth or within the first few months of your child’s life.
Other symptoms of a blocked tear duct include:
- pus in the eye
- crusting eyelids and eyelashes
Your child may experience an infection related to a blocked tear duct. Symptoms of the infection, called dacryocystitis, include:
- redness in the inner corner of the eye
- bump at the side of the nose that is tender or swollen
It’s important to visit a pediatrician if you suspect this condition in your infant. The symptoms associated with a blocked tear duct may rarely actually be symptoms of childhood glaucoma.
Your child’s watery eyes can also be a symptom of a common cold.
Children are more susceptible to colds than adults because they’ve not built up immunity and often touch their eyes, nose, and mouth, causing more germs to spread. Your child may develop watery eyes along with other cold symptoms like a stuffed or runny nose and sneezing.
Your infant’s watery eyes may also be caused by an infection.
Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye, may be causing the watery eyes. This can occur in children at any time. Pink eye occurs when a virus or, less commonly, bacteria get into the eye. Conjunctivitis can also be caused by irritation.
Symptoms of pink eye include:
- red eyes
- swollen eyes
- discharge of pus from the eye
Newborns are particularly at risk if they develop pink eye and it goes untreated for too long. A mother can pass on an infection to her newborn during childbirth, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, even if she doesn’t have symptoms.
If your newborn shows signs of pink eye, see a doctor immediately. The doctor will look for swelling, redness, and dilated blood vessels.
Watery, red eyes may be a symptom of allergic conjunctivitis. Irritants like pollen, dust, and smoke can cause an allergic reaction in the eye.
Hay fever, known as allergic rhinitis, may also cause watery eyes. Other symptoms for this condition include:
- runny and/or itchy nose
- nasal congestion and postnasal drip
- ear canal pressure or pain
Toddlers may experience watery eyes for many of the same reasons as infants. An unresolved blocked tear duct from infancy or an infection or allergies may be causing the symptom.
Toddlers are also more likely than older children and adults to develop frequent colds, which may cause watery eyes.
The treatment for watery eyes in infants and toddlers will vary. Often, you don’t need to do much to treat the watery eyes and the symptom will clear up on its own.
In other cases, you may need a prescription to clear up an infection. Or your child may need to have surgery to resolve a long-lasting blocked tear duct.
You may consider home remedies if a doctor recommends them or if your child’s watery eyes look white in color and not irritated.
Blocked tear ducts can resolve on their own, but your doctor may recommend massaging the tear duct to help it open. You can massage the outside of your child’s nose (from the eye to the corner of the nose) with a clean index finger. Apply firm pressure during the massage.
You may also find that gently pressing a warm cloth to the eye also helps clean the eye and provides comfort to your child.
For older children, watery eyes caused by colds or hay fever may be minimized with over-the-counter cold and allergy medications recommended by a doctor.
Your child’s watery eyes may require medical treatment if they’re infected or if the tearing persists.
Blocked tear ducts can get infected at times and may require an antibiotic to treat. These can be administered topically with an ointment or eye drop, orally, or even in some cases intravenously at the hospital.
Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria may also require antibiotics to clear the condition out of your child’s eye. A pediatrician may recommend rinsing the eye with saline to clear out buildup in the eye.
If your child’s blocked tear duct does not resolve itself, your child may need a greater level of medical care. A doctor may recommend nasolacrimal duct probing. This involves the doctor inserting a small probe through your child’s tear duct into their nose to widen the passage. A doctor may be able to do this with a local anesthetic for your child, or it may require general anesthesia.
If the probing procedure does not help the blocked tear duct, your child may need another procedure. There are varying types of procedures. Many have low complication rates and do not require overnight hospitalization.
See a pediatrician right away if your newborn develops watery eyes, as they may be a sign of a more serious condition, like pink eye. Newborn pink eye caused by a bacterial infection needs to be treated within 24 hours of symptoms.
You should also see a doctor if the following symptoms accompany your child’s watery eyes:
- discharge that is yellow or green in color
- changes in eye or eyelid structure
- sensitivity to light
- itching (your child may rub their eyes often)
Several conditions can cause watery eyes in infants and children. Some like blocked tear ducts or a viral infection may resolve on their own with time. Other causes may require more immediate medical treatment.
You should talk to your child’s doctor to diagnose the condition and begin appropriate treatment if your child’s watery eyes are accompanied by other symptoms, or if you’re concerned.