Why does my baby have a sticky eye?

A few days after bringing her newborn home from the hospital, Sophia noticed some tears leaking from the baby’s left eye. That night, the baby’s eyelids were stuck together with a yellowish crust. Sophia was concerned, but a call to the pediatrician was reassuring: Dacryostenosis, commonly referred to as a blocked tear duct, is a relatively common condition. Babies who have blocked tear ducts typically have symptoms within the first few days to the first few weeks after birth. Most of the time, blocked tear ducts in babies clear up on their own during the baby's first year.

What is a blocked tear duct?

Tears normally drain from the eye through small tubes called tear ducts, which stretch from the eye and empty into the nose. If a tear duct becomes blocked or fails to open, tears can’t drain from the eye properly. The duct may fill with fluid and become swollen, inflamed, and sometimes infected.

About 5 to 10 percent of babies have a blocked duct, sometimes in both eyes.

What causes a blocked tear duct?

The most common cause of blocked tear ducts in children is failure of the thin tissue at the end of the tear duct to open normally. Other causes include infections, abnormal growth of the nasal bone, and closed or undeveloped openings in the corners of the eyes where tears drain into the tear ducts.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms, which often affect only one eye, include heavy or constant tearing, a yellow or white buildup in the corner of the eye and eyelids that stick together. Symptoms may get worse after an upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or sinus infection. Wind, cold, and sunlight also may make symptoms worse.

How is a blocked tear duct treated?

In most cases, blocked tear ducts aren’t serious and they clear up on their own — typically by the time your baby reaches 12 months of age. In the meantime, there are a few simple ways to help clear up blocked tear ducts at home. Make sure to always wash your hands before and after you touch your baby’s eye area.

Use a warm compress. Every few hours, when the drainage builds up, warm up a clean and soft washcloth with water and gently clean the eye. If both tear ducts are clogged, use the clean side of the washcloth for the other eye.

Apply tear duct massage. To help open the tear duct, you can do a tear duct massage. Apply gentle pressure toward the opening of the duct, alongside the upper nose and along the lower eyelid. You can perform the duct massage up to two times a day—just remember to be as gentle as possible.

Eye drops. If the ducts do get infected, your child’s pediatrician or eye doctor might prescribe antibiotic drops or ointment to put into the eyes.