Epiphora (Watery Eyes)

Your tears lubricate and protect your eye. But if you’re making too many — or if something stops them from draining properly — you might have epiphora, the medical definition of watery eyes.


What is epiphora?

Epiphora is the medical term for having watery eyes.

Usually, tears lubricate and protect your eyes. Epiphora happens when something causes you to make too many tears or stops them from draining away from your eyes like they should.

Epiphora can happen for lots of reasons, many of which don’t need any treatment. It can be a temporary condition, but it can also be a sign of a serious eye infection or a blockage in your tear ducts. Visit your healthcare provider if your eyes are constantly watering or you’re having trouble seeing.

Who does epiphora affect?

Anyone can be affected by epiphora. Most people experience watery eyes at some point throughout their life.

Epiphora that happens frequently — chronic watery eyes — is more common in babies and adults older than 50.

How does epiphora affect my body?

Having watery eyes is the most obvious way epiphora will affect you. Having one watery eye is sometimes referred to as unilateral epiphora. If both your eyes are watery at the same time you have bilateral epiphora.

Depending on what’s causing the epiphora, you might also experience other issues in or around your eyes, including:


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of watery eyes?

Symptoms of epiphora include:

  • Eyes that feel too wet or watery.
  • Tears running down your face.
  • Tears building up in your eyes when you’re not crying or laughing.

What causes watery eyes?

Watery eyes are usually a sign of another issue or condition that’s affecting your eyes or tear system. Some of the most common causes of epiphora include:

Eye injuries can also cause epiphora, including:

  • Environmental irritants like smoke or air pollution.
  • Scratched corneas (corneal abrasions).
  • Dirt, debris, chemicals or any foreign object that touches your eye for too long.

Infections like pink eye (conjunctivitis) or sinus infections (sinusitis) can cause watery eyes, as well.


Diagnosis and Tests

How is epiphora diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider or eye care specialist will diagnose epiphora with an eye exam. They might put colored eye drops in your eyes to see how they drain. Usually, your tears will wash the drops and dye away from your eye in a few minutes. If they don’t, there’s a chance you have a blocked tear duct. You might need a few imaging tests, including:

Your provider might use an endoscope — a long, flexible tube with a light on the end — to look inside your nasal cavity if they think the epiphora is caused by an issue in your tear ducts or sinuses.

Management and Treatment

How is epiphora treated?

How your watery eyes are treated depends on what’s causing them. Many people experience temporary epiphora that clears up on its own without any treatment.

Your provider will tell you which type of treatment you’ll need. The most common treatments include:

  • Medications: You’ll need medication to treat your watery eyes if the epiphora is caused by allergies or an infection. If you have a condition like dry eye syndrome, your provider might prescribe artificial tears or prescription eye drops.
  • Removing foreign objects: If there’s something in your eye or something hit your eye and damaged it, your provider will remove it or treat the damage. You might need surgery if a foreign object severely damaged your eye.
  • Clearing blocked tear ducts: If you have blocked tear ducts, your provider will open them. They can flush them with a saline solution to rinse away the blockage. They can use a probe to open your tear ducts manually if they need to. If your tear ducts are damaged or blocked by something your provider can’t remove with either saline or a probe, you might need surgery to open them.
  • Repairing your eyes or eyelids: If the physical shape of your eyes or eyelids is causing epiphora, your provider will repair the damage. You might need surgery to correct some issues.

How do I manage symptoms of watery eyes?

Your provider will tell you how to manage your epiphora symptoms. If they prescribe a medication, make sure to take it or use it as often as they say.

This is especially true if they give you antibiotics for an infection. You need to take antibiotics for as long as your provider prescribes, even if your symptoms improve. If you don’t take the full course of antibiotics, the infection might come back, get worse or spread to other parts of your body.

Don’t rub your eyes. Don’t touch your eyeball with anything like a tissue or towel if you’re using one to dry excess tears — you might damage your eye or aggravate the cause of your watery eyes.


How can I reduce my risk of epiphora?

Depending on what’s causing your watery eyes, there might not be any way to prevent them. If your eyes are irritated by something in the air, or you’re experiencing allergy symptoms, you probably can’t avoid watery eyes.

Make sure to wear all the proper equipment — including eye protection or goggles — for any work or activity that might hurt your eyes.

If you can, avoid your allergy triggers.

Talk to your provider about ways you might be able to prevent watery eyes in the future.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have epiphora?

Most cases of epiphora are temporary. Your eyes might only be watery during allergy season, or until your eye heals after being irritated by a foreign object. But — even if you need treatment — you should expect your watery eyes to get better. Talk to your provider about what to expect based on what’s causing your watery eyes.

Will I need to miss work or school while I’m recovering from epiphora?

You probably won’t need to miss work or school while you’re recovering from epiphora. You might have to take time off your job or miss some classes if you need surgery to repair damage to your eye, or if your watery eyes are affecting your vision.

Talk to your provider or surgeon before resuming any physical activities after surgery.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Visit your provider if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Eye pain.
  • Swelling.
  • You feel or see a lump or bump in your eye.
  • Your eyes are watery all the time.
  • You notice any changes in your vision or watery eyes make it hard to see clearly.

Go to the emergency room if you’ve experienced trauma or you suddenly lose vision in one or both of your eyes.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • What’s causing my watery eyes?
  • Which tests will I need?
  • Will I need any treatment?
  • How long should I take medication?
  • What can I do to prevent epiphora in the future?

Additional Common Questions

What is the difference between epiphora and lacrimation?

Lacrimation is the healthy production of tears in your eyes that happens automatically. Tears lubricate and protect your eyes.

You have two sets of lacrimal glands that make up your tear system. Your main lacrimal glands near the upper outer corner of each of your eyes produce tears to flush foreign materials out of your eyes. They also make tears when you’re crying. Your accessory lacrimal glands are behind your upper and lower eyelids. They produce the tears that moisten your eyes.

Epiphora is the medical definition for having excess tears or watery eyes. It’s caused by your eyes producing too many tears, or the tears in your eyes not draining away as they should.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

It doesn’t matter if you’re laughing, crying or just fighting through this year’s allergy season — it’s natural to have watery eyes sometimes. However, if you feel like your eyes are watery all the time, or that your tears aren’t draining from your eyes like they usually do, you might have epiphora.

Talk to your provider or eye care specialist about your symptoms. No matter which treatments you need (if you do at all), you should make a full recovery and have clear eyes.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/16/2022.

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