Picture this: You’re walking to work in the dead of winter. Even with your hat, scarf, gloves, and giant puffer, you can feel the chill deep within your bones. And then, it happens. The dreaded tears start dripping down your face. Five minutes later, you show up at work looking like you’ve spent the last hour crying—mascara running, red-rimmed eyes and all. What gives?
Cold temperatures and rough winds are just a few of the many, many causes of watery eyes. If you’ve never experienced the phenomenon, it might sound like NBD. But it can be a serious pain to deal with, even without the potential sight-related issues that can come with the territory.
So why exactly are your eyes watering, and what can you do about it? We consulted ophthalmologist Robert Block, MD, and internal medicine physician Arielle Levitan, MD, to find out. Read on for what they had to say.
Meet the Expert
What Can Cause Watery Eyes?
In general, tears are a good thing—they keep the eyes’ front surfaces healthy, keep eyes moist, and help you maintain clear vision. But, as it turns out, too much of a good thing (tears) can actually be a sign of a larger problem.
Watery eyes are caused by one of two main factors: an overproduction of tears or a problem draining tears (which usually stems from blocked tear ducts). And while some people are simply born with underdeveloped tear ducts or overactive tear production, the symptoms tend to be signs of other issues at play. As for the underlying issue causing overproduction or drainage problems, there are a handful of common ones.
Yes, strangely enough, watery eyes can be a symptom of dry eyes. Also known as dysfunctional tear syndrome, Block says it’s one of the two most common causes of watery eyes. This can occur for a myriad of reasons—maybe your body doesn’t make enough tears or perhaps the tears you do produce dry up too quickly. It’s even possible your eyes don’t have the right balance of water, oils, and mucus to produce ideal tears.
And while some people are simply born with dryer eyes, it can also be exacerbated by situational factors (for example, extreme wind, as well as certain antidepressants, are known to cause dry eyes). Regardless of the reason, dry eyes cause irritation, which the body responds to by producing more tears (to try and flush out that irritation), according to Block.
Allergies and Common Colds
Millions of people suffer from allergies, and watery, itchy eyes often come with a cough, runny nose, and other classic allergy symptoms. It’s also possible to have eye allergies on their own. Common colds can cause watery eyes, too, but while both allergies and colds can cause watery eyes, colds rarely cause itchy eyes. In both instances, watery eyes typically clear up on their own as other symptoms abate. According to Block, when eyes tear from allergies, it is due to a histamine cascade reaction, which ultimately leads to an excessive release of tears and mucus.
Other Common Causes
While Block says dry eye syndrome and allergies are the most common culprits, there are a handful of other fairly common causes for watery eyes. This includes blocked tear drains, inflamed oil glands in the eyelids (called blepharitis), corneal abrasion, and infections like pink eye or other, more rare inflammations of the eye, says Levitan.
Less Common Causes
- Exposure to chemicals and fumes: Certain chemicals and fumes may cause eye irritation and watering, especially volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are commonly found in cleaners, solvents, paints, furniture, and even carpets. Levitan says even exposure to some makeup products and sunscreens can cause chemical irritations.
- Eye injuries: There are many different potential eye injuries, all of which could possibly result in excessively watery eyes.
- Certain medications: Some medications can cause dry eyes—and, as we stated earlier, watery eyes can be a symptom of dry eyes. These medications can include antidepressants, retinoids, and antihistamines.
When Are Watery Eyes Cause for Concern?
More often than not, watery eyes alone aren’t an indication of anything serious, though both doctors agree that excessive or prolonged tearing paired with other specific symptoms could be cause for concern. More specifically, they warn against watery eyes accompanied by vision loss or disturbance, discharge or bleeding from eyes, unexplained bruising around eyes, severe headaches, swollen or irritated eyes, or any sort of injury or scratch to the eyes.
When Should You See a Doctor?
In most cases, watery eyes clear up without any treatment. But if they don’t, or they’re in conjunction with any of the above symptoms, it’s probably best to head to a professional. Be prepared to answer questions about any recent eye injuries, health conditions, and prescription or over-the-counter medications and supplements regularly taken.
As for at-home remedies, Block says that using artificial tears four or more times a day can potentially reduce or eliminate tearing due to dysfunctional tear syndrome; for allergy-related tearing, a cold compress should do the trick. Levitan suggests looking into over-the-counter medications for allergy-related eye-watering.
The Final Takeaway
Unfortunately, watery eyes seem to be quite common. The good news is that mild cases tend to go away on their own. So don’t jump to worrying right away, unless it’s causing any pain or sight-related issues. If issues persist or worsen, talk to a doctor about additional treatment methods. In any case, monitor your symptoms and reach out for help when you need it.
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Dry eyes - Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic.
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