Congenital Nasolacrimal Duct Obstruction

Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

The nasolacrimal duct usually canalises at eight months of fetal life but there is commonly a delay in this developmental process which can result in residual membrane tissue or stenosis at any level in the nasolacrimal system - from the canaliculi to the extreme end of the nasolacrimal duct underneath the inferior turbinate.

Persistent membranous obstruction at the bottom end of the nasolacrimal duct occurs in up to 70% of neonates (dacryostenosis). However, only 2-4% of newborns exhibit the clinical phenomena of nasolacrimal duct obstruction.

There may (rarely) be other associated abnormalities - agenesis or abnormalities of the puncta, lacrimal sac, duct or absence of valves (valve of Hasner ± valve of Rosenmüller).

Epiphora (watering eyes) which develops within six weeks of birth, sticky eyes, recurrent conjunctivitis, crusting of the eyelids, ± boggy swelling over the inner canthal region from which it may be possible to express pus. These infants may less commonly present for the first time with dacryocystitis. It is bilateral in a third of cases.

Diagnosis is usually straightforward - but always consider:

  • Congenital dacryocystocele (uncommon tense blueish swelling of the lacrimal sac) - acute inflammation occurs commonly and there may be an associated intranasal cyst. Refer to ophthalmology.
  • Congenital conjunctivitis (ophthalmia neonatorum) or other conjunctivitis.
  • Corneal abrasions.
  • Congenital glaucoma - this is another important paediatric childhood condition that may present with epiphora. Photophobia, a difference in eye size (compare the diameter of the cornea of each eye with a simple desk-top clear ruler) and clouding of the cornea suggest congenital glaucoma which needs urgent ophthalmic assessment.[1]
  • Other congenital abnormality - eg, albinism or aniridia.

Fluorescein dye disappearance test may be helpful - a small drop of dye is instilled into both eyes and will normally disappear over five minutes if the duct is patent, and may subsequently be visible in the nostril using blue light.

However, this is usually a clinical diagnosis and using dye is often not necessary.


In most cases, simple massaging of the ducts may be enough because of the high rate of spontaneous resolution. Parents should be advised to apply gentle pressure with their finger over the common canaliculus, stroking downwards firmly to raise pressure in the lacrimal sac and encourage opening of the valve. They should perform ten strokes twice daily. They should also be advised to perform regular cleaning of any discharge from the eyelids.[2]

Use topical antibiotics for any episodes of associated conjunctivitis (ie red conjunctiva as opposed to simple discharge).

In infants with nasolacrimal duct obstruction (NLDO) who are aged between 6 and 10 months, non-surgical management will resolve symptoms within six months in over half of cases.[3]


Current guidelines are for children with persistent obstruction beyond 1 year of age to be referred for probing as a first-line interventional therapy.[2]This is usually carried out under a brief general anaesthetic as a day case. However, the optimal timing for probing still remains controversial.[4]Although there is still a high possibility of spontaneous resolution after 1 year of age, there is actually a reduction in success rates for probing with increasing age.

Surgical treatment is rarely considered before 6 months of age.[3]

One study found that probing was successful in 75% of eyes overall. The procedure was less successful in eyes of children with bilateral NLDO compared with unilateral NLDO.[5]

If symptoms persist after probing then the procedure can be repeated, usually with placement of a silicone stent to hold the passage open whilst it settles from the surgery.[6]This remains in place for several months before removal, again usually with a brief general anaesthetic.  Occasionally a dacryocystorhinostomy (DCR) procedure is required.

Conjunctivitis is the most common complication. This can be managed with simple topical antibiotics. The baby may also be born with - or develop - a dacryocystocele (mucocele) whereby fluid (eg, amniotic fluid) enters the sac and is retained by the non-patent duct. This may lead to acute dacryocystitis.

The risks of probing include:

  • Failure - the risks of this increase exponentially with age and number of probings.
  • Creation of a false passage.
  • Bleeding (rare).

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  1. Moore DB, Tomkins O, Ben-Zion I; A review of primary congenital glaucoma in the developing world. Surv Ophthalmol. 2013 May-Jun 58(3):278-85. doi: 10.1016/j.survophthal.2012.11.003. Epub 2013 Mar 5.
  2. Nasolacrimal duct obstruction (nasolacrimal drainage dysfunction); College of Optometrists (Feb 2012)
  3. Resolution of congenital nasolacrimal duct obstruction with nonsurgical management; Arch Ophthalmol. 2012 Jun 130(6):730-4. doi: 10.1001/archophthalmol.2012.454.
  4. Takahashi Y, Kakizaki H, Chan WO, et al; Management of congenital nasolacrimal duct obstruction. Acta Ophthalmol. 2009 Jul 21.
  5. Miller AM, Chandler DL, Repka MX, et al; Office probing for treatment of nasolacrimal duct obstruction in infants. J AAPOS. 2014 Feb 18(1):26-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jaapos.2013.10.016.
  6. Memon MN, Siddiqui SN, Arshad M, et al; Nasolacrimal duct obstruction in children: outcome of primary intubation. J Pak Med Assoc. 2012 Dec 62(12):1329-32.
Dr Louise Newson
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Helen Huins
Document ID:
1995 (v22)
Last Checked:
16 April 2014
Next Review:
15 April 2019

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.