Watery Eye

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is watery eye?

Healthy tears provide a moist protective surface to the eye. Blinking refreshes the tear film and directs tear fluid towards the inner corner of the eyelids when it drains. Watery eye can be the result of irritation or inflammation in or around your eye that causes your eyelids to increase tear production. Any type of obstruction to tear outflow will interfere with normal tear drainage and cause a watery eye. In either case, one or both of your eyes may become watery. This article focuses on excess tear production.

Tears are your eyes’ way of protecting themselves and expelling debris or clearing infections. Tears are a combination of water, oil, and mucus. Healthy eyes glisten due to the presence of a balanced tear film. Excess water production in tears can be protective to the eye. Watery eye is usually caused by irritation or infection of the eye, injury to the eye from trauma, or a common cold. Other symptoms of eye irritation, including itching, redness, a gritty feeling, and swelling of the eyelids, often accompany watery eyes.

Physical irritants that get in your eye cause watery eye as the body increases tear production to wash away the offending substance, which may be smoke or dust in the air or personal care products such as soap or shampoo. Allergies are a very common cause of watery eyes. An allergy that affects your eyes may be local, such as an allergic reaction to eye makeup, or more generalized, such as hay fever.

Infections or inflammations of the eyelid margin, the area near your eyelashes, are also frequent causes of watery eye. These conditions include blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid margin), chalazion (inflammation of a blocked oil gland in the eyelid margin), and stye or hordeolum (localized bacterial infection of an oil gland or eyelash follicle in the eyelid margin).

In most cases, watery eye is a result of a mild condition and usually resolves on its own. In rare cases, watery eye can be associated with more serious infections or trauma. Because your eyes and vision are vital to your quality of life, be sure to contact your health care provider if you have any eye symptoms that cause you concern.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have an eye injury or if your watery eyes occur along with serious symptoms such as a sudden change in your vision, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), severe pain in your eye, sudden swelling of the face, lips or tongue, or difficulty breathing.

Seek prompt medical care if your symptom of watery eye is persistent or causes you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with watery eye?

Depending on the cause of your watery eyes, other parts of your body may also be affected. A variety of symptoms involving your eyes or other parts of your body can occur along with watery eyes.

Common symptoms that may occur along with watery eye

Watery eye may accompany other common symptoms including:

  • Boggy conjunctiva (chemosis)
  • Burning feeling in the eyes
  • Crusting of the eyelid margin
  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Gritty feeling
  • Redness of the eyes or eyelids
  • Runny nose (nasal congestion)
  • Sense of a foreign body in the eye
  • Sneezing
  • Swelling of the face

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, watery eye may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious, or even life-threatening, condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have watery eyes along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Abnormal pupil size or nonreactivity to light

  • Chemical burns in the eye area

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not
    breathing, choking

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

  • Trauma to the eye

What causes watery eye?

In general, anything that irritates or inflames the surface of your eye can cause watery eye. Increased tear production is part of the body’s natural defense system and serves to wash away irritating substances and infectious agents.

It sounds like a contradiction, but dry eyes are the most common cause for watery eyes. The tear glands go into overdrive if the eye is too dry. Physical irritants, such as smoke or dust in the air or soap and shampoo in your home, also increase tear production. Allergies are another very common cause of watery eyes.

Infections or inflammations of the eyelid margin are also frequent causes of watery eye. These conditions include blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid margin), chalazion (inflammation of a blocked oil gland in the eyelid margin), and stye or hordeolum (localized bacterial infection of an oil gland or eyelash follicle in the eyelid margin).

Common causes of watery eye

Watery eye symptoms may be caused by several common conditions that involve the eyes themselves or something more widespread in the body including:

  • Blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid margin)

  • Chalazion (inflammation of a blocked oil gland in the eyelid margin)

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)

  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye surface)

  • Contact lens over-wear

  • Dry eye (excess reflex tear production)

  • Hay fever or allergic reaction from animal dander, dust, cosmetics or pollen

  • Local allergic reactions to makeup or personal care products (contact dermatitis)

  • Medicamentosa (sensitivity to eyedrop)

  • Physical irritation from substances, such as smoke, dust, soap or shampooStye or hordeolum (localized bacterial infection of an oil gland or eyelash follicle in the eyelid margin)

Serious causes of watery eye

Less commonly, watery eye may be caused by a serious condition including:

  • Caustic chemical in your eye

  • Foreign body embedded in your eye

  • Episcleritis or scleritis

  • Intraocular inflammation (uveitis, endophthalmitis)

  • Orbital cellulitis (invasive infection of the soft tissues around the eye)

  • Trauma to the eye area

Questions for diagnosing the cause of watery eye

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your eyelid symptoms including:

  • Have you had recent eye surgery?

  • When did your eyes first become watery?

  • Does the wateriness occur in one or both of your eyes?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Has your vision changed?

  • Are you taking any medications?

  • Do you have any allergies?

  • Has anything hit you in the eye or flown into your eye?

  • Have you been around anyone with an eye infection recently?

  • Have you had a similar condition before?

What are the potential complications of watery eye?

Watery eyes are generally caused by mild conditions and usually do not result in permanent damage to the eye. In very rare cases, a watery eye may be caused by a more serious condition such as a serious allergic reaction or infection, which, left untreated, can lead to permanent complications. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Chronic ocular pain or discomfort

  • Loss of vision and blindness

  • Progression of symptoms

  • Scarring of the eye

  • Spread of infection

Was this helpful?
  1. Eye burning - itching and discharge. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003034.htm.
  2. Pink eye: usually mild and easy to treat. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/Features/Conjunctivitis.
  3. Conjunctivitis: Causes of Pink Eye. American Academy of Ophthalmology. http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/conjunctivitis-cause.cfm.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 8
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