What causes watery eyes in the elderly?

Age often brings with it a variety of health problems, including vision changes. One commonly noticed symptom among older and elderly people is watery eyes, or excessive tearing. While this is usually just a sign of allergies or irritation, in older adults it can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying eye condition. It is important for friends and loved ones to recognise these eye problems as early as possible, so they can be treated before they develop further or cause complications. We’ll take a closer look at some of the causes of watery eyes in older people, and what can be done to help.

Droopy eyelids (ectropion)

The most common cause of watery eyes in the elderly is ectropion — a name given to the sagging of the lower eyelids that develops as we age. In older adults, this can cause excessive eye-watering as the skin of the eyelids becomes lax and droops away from the eye, reducing the ability of the eyelids to drain tears away through the tear ducts, causing them to accumulate on the surface of the eye. 

Dry eye syndrome

Elderly people frequently experience dry eyes because the eyes naturally produce fewer tears as we age. Ironically, dry eye syndrome can actually cause the eyes to overwater. When the tear glands do not produce enough moisture regularly, the eyes become dry and irritated. To remedy this, the tear glands overcompensate and produce a flood of tears, leading to watery eyes.

Eye infections and inflammation

Watery eyes in older people can also be the result of conjunctivitis or other eye infections that you become more prone to as you age. Infections can cause the eyelids and conjunctiva to swell, and might lead to blocked tear ducts which can prevent the tears from draining properly.


Cataracts are commonly characterised by cloudy, misty vision. This condition can make the eyes more sensitive to light, which can lead to excessive tear production. If the eyes have been watering because of the presence of a cataract, surgery to remove the cataract may help reduce the watering too.

 Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD)

Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD) is a group of disorders that affects the composition of the tear film. The most common cause of MGD is age, with some studies showing that it affects up to 78% of older people.1 The meibomian glands are located on the edge of the eyelid and produce oil that prevents the tears from drying up too rapidly. Over time, changes to this oil or the glands that produce it can lead to excessive eye watering because the tears evaporate more quickly, so more tears have to be produced.

What help is available?

If you have persistent watering eyes or any lumps or swelling around your eyes visit your Specsavers optometrist. They will identify your symptoms.

If you have dry eye syndrome, you may be given lubricating eye drops, advised to avoid activities that aggravate your symptoms or advised on some simple eye hygiene tips.

Your GP may also prescribe additional medication if the cause is an allergy or infection. In some cases, you may then be referred to an ophthalmologist for further examination of your tear ducts.

Did you know?

Specsavers stores provide a range of additional eye care services to help maintain the health of your eyes. In some areas of the country, this may be provided free of charge on behalf of the NHS. Where NHS services are not available, there is a private service. Rather than booking an appointment online, contact your local store for more information and to arrange an eye health clinic appointment.


  1. Alghamdi YA, Mercado C, McClellan AL, Batawi H, Karp CL, Galor A. Epidemiology of Meibomian Gland Dysfunction in an Elderly Population. Cornea. 2016;35(6):731-735. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4860128 [Accessed 27 June 2020].