10 causes of eye watering and tearing and how to treat it

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Your eyes can water or tear up for many reasons, including weather, allergies or, more seriously, an infection. If you find yourself tearing up suddenly, pay attention to what you’re doing or the environmental factors you’re being exposed to when it occurs, as this might help explain why it’s happening.

1. Irritation and watering due to weather

Changes in seasons typically can cause changes to the eye due to the amount of humidity in the air and allergens. As winter approaches and we increase heat at home, work and in the car, the air loses humidity, which causes the eye to become very dry. Your eyes try to help increase the amount of tears produced, but the type of tear produced doesn’t help lubricate the eye and results in watering of these extra tears. 

The best treatment for this is an oil-based lubricant available over the counter. Your eye doctor can recommend the best products.

2. Aerosol-related watering

Most perfumes, hair spray, body spray and air fresheners contain irritants that can cause the eye to become watery and red, even if the product isn’t sprayed directly in the eye. Even just walking through an area with these products in the air can cause irritation.

Flushing the eye with a nonpreserved saline or lubricant eye drop can help comfort the eye. If any of these products are accidentally splashed or instilled directly in the eye, see your eye care professional immediately.

3. Allergies 

Spring and summer allergies can cause many uncomfortable symptoms in and around the eyes, including itching, watering, redness and swelling of the white of the eye.

Try to wash eyelids daily to remove any allergens near or around the eyelids. Also, there are many over-the-counter antihistamine eye drops that can help with these symptoms. If the over-the-counter eye drops don’t provide sustained relief, there are prescription-strength products that your eye doctor can prescribe.

4. Pink eye

Pink eye is one of the most frustrating eye conditions. It commonly causes red and very watery, irritated eyes. Most pink eye is caused by a virus, like the common cold, which is contagious and can take multiple weeks to resolve. Unfortunately, since pink eye is usually caused by a virus, no antibiotic eye drop can resolve the condition.

The best treatment is cold artificial tears (no redness relievers), cold compresses and frequent hand-washing.

Related: 4 things you need to know about pink eye

5. 
Watering and dry eye

It seems counterintuitive, but watering is commonly the most bothersome symptom of dry eye. Tears are made of three ingredients and, if there’s an imbalance in these, the tears won’t stay on the eye and will result in watering. Most commonly, the oil layer of the tears is lacking.

Warm compresses in the form of a washcloth with warm water or microwaveable eyelid mask (available over the counter) are the best option as they heat the oil glands and help stimulate more oil production, which provides more long-term relief. 

Oil-based tears are also another option for more immediate relief.

6. Inflammation of the eyelid

Inflammation of the eyelids, or blepharitis, is caused by debris or products building up on the eyelids. This can cause irritation, redness and dryness of the eyelid itself and watering.

Washing the eyelids daily can help significantly reduce this problem. This can be performed using a baby shampoo on a warm wash cloth or using specific eyelid wipes available over the counter.

7. Styes 

A stye is a bump on the eyelid resulting from an oil gland being clogged. When a stye is recent and still irritated or infected, it’s referred to as a hordeolum. As the bump becomes more solid and has been present longer, it’s considered to be a chalazion. The gland can be clogged for multiple reasons, including make-up or debris covering the gland. These glands (known as Meibomian glands) are located just behind the eyelashes on the top and bottom eyelids.

The best treatment for a stye is a warm compress. Heat helps to liquefy the clogged gland and release the oil stuck inside. A warm washcloth can be used, although a better option is a microwavable eyelid mask. “Stye” drops that you can buy over the counter only lubricate the eye and won’t help reduce the size of the stye. If the warm compresses don’t improve the size of the bump, or the bump is continuing to be painful, you should visit your eye doctor to see if any further treatment is necessary.

Related: How to recognize and treat a stye

8. Eye scratches 

A scratch on the cornea is extremely painful and will cause redness, blurred vision and watering. The cornea is one of the most sensitive parts of the body and usually heals quickly with appropriate treatment.

If you think your eye is scratched, it’s best to see your eye doctor as soon as possible, as scratches can easily become infected.

9. Makeup and watery eyes 

Makeup is frequently used around the eyes, but many makeup products are irritating to the eye and can cause watering and irritation. It’s best to avoid any eyeliner or makeup directly on the “water line.” This area of the eye is where the eye glands produce oil. If these are clogged, not only can makeup get into the gland and cause an infection, but styes will become more frequent.  

It’s best to replace makeup according to the replacement label; there’s a small icon with a number indicating the amount of months a product can be used.  Makeup not used within this time should be thrown away, as it’s more likely to become infected and cause extreme irritation.  Makeup also should be removed at the end of the day with makeup remover, makeup wipes or eyelid wipes.

Related: Are mascara and eyeliner bad for your eyes?

10. Contact lens wear 

Soft contact lenses generally should be very comfortable while they’re in the eye. If you notice any watering or eye irritation that’s abnormal, you should remove the contact lens and inspect it for rips, tears or abnormalities.

If the lens has any rip or tear, it should be thrown away, as it will cause irritation and continued watering. If the watering or irritation continues, it’s important to visit your eye doctor, as contact lens wearers have a much higher risk of infections.

Related: 6 Contact lens no-no’s

 Stephanie Pisano is an optometrist who specializes in contact lenses. She’s also an assistant professor at Havener Eye Institute at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.