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Dacryocystitis Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Grant D Gilliland, MD; Chief Editor: Edsel Ing, MD, FRCSC  more...
Updated: Feb 01, 2016


Acute dacryocystitis is manifested by the sudden onset of pain, erythema, and edema overlying the lacrimal sac region.[2]

The tenderness is characteristically localized in the medial canthal region but may extend to the nose, cheek, teeth, and face.

Thermography has demonstrated an intensive hemifacial reaction in patients with acute dacryocystitis. Frequently, a purulent discharge is noted from the puncta.

It is not uncommon for the sac to rupture and fistulize through the skin; this fistula commonly closes after a few days of drainage.

Conjunctival injection and preseptal cellulitis often occur in conjunction with acute dacryocystitis.

Epiphora is invariably present, and it is not uncommon for a palpable mass to be noted inferior to the medial canthal tendon.

A few patients present with fever, prostration, and an elevated leukocyte count.

More serious sequelae of acute dacryocystitis include extension into the orbit with formation of an abscess and development of orbital cellulitis. When this occurs, it may lead to blindness, cavernous sinus thrombosis, and death.


Tearing is the most common presentation of chronic dacryocystitis and is related to the obstruction of the outflow of tears, debris, and epithelial cells from the surface of the eye.


This is caused by the obstruction of drainage of the mucous layer of the tear film with collection of debris and denuded epithelial cells from the surface of the eye.

Frequently, it may be associated with conjunctivitis. This is attributed to the toxic nature of the debris to the surface of the eye or because of exotoxins produced by staphylococcal organisms, which normally reside on the external surface of the eye and are not cleared by the normal tear outflow.


Cellulitis is seen predominately in acute dacryocystitis and is due to bacterial overgrowth with rupture through the wall of the lacrimal sac into surrounding soft tissue.

Orbital cellulitis

This is a rare, but serious, complication of dacryocystitis. It is associated most commonly with acute dacryocystitis and congenital acute dacryocystitis.

Commonly, orbital cellulitis presents as an inflamed painful eye with abnormal motility, abnormal pupil examination, and decreased visual acuity.

Massive periorbital edema and erythema is not uncommon.

Decreased visual acuity

A commonly observed complaint, it is primarily due to the increased tear film on the surface of the eye. This increased tear film abnormally refracts light and is associated with fluctuating visual acuity.

In addition, the standard 3 layers of the tear film, mucus, aqueous, and oil, are abnormal and are present in abnormal proportions.

Periorbital edema

This usually is related to the inflammation associated with the buildup of toxic debris on the surface of the eye and exotoxins secreted by staphylococcal organisms living on the surface of the eye.

Periorbital edema is most pronounced in the morning and subsides late in the day because of repeated contractures of the orbicularis muscle milking the edema from the soft tissues around the eye.



Fever results from a fulminant bacterial or fungal infection in the lacrimal sac, which spreads to the surrounding tissues. This is not uncommonly associated with significant sinus disease.

Leukocytosis also is common in acute dacryocystitis.

Cellulitis surrounding the affected lacrimal sac is common in patients with acute dacryocystitis. This can spread to involve the orbit and cause orbital cellulitis.

Altered visual acuity most frequently is caused by an abnormal tear film with abnormal refraction of light at the air-tear film interface. It also can be due to corneal surface irregularities resulting from chronic surface inflammation.

Altered pupillary reaction is only seen in severe cases of dacryocystitis associated with an orbital cellulitis. This is due to increased intraorbital pressure and necrosis of the pupillomotor fibers in the orbit.

Diplopia is also rare and is seen in patients with orbital cellulitis resulting from acute dacryocystitis. These patients have orbital inflammation involving the extraocular muscles, which causes the muscles to dysfunction, resulting in diplopia.

Loss of peripheral vision is also rare and caused by orbital cellulitis secondary to acute dacryocystitis. This results in an optic neuropathy with loss of peripheral vision. Many times, this can be subtle and can be detected on perimetry testing.

Conjunctivitis frequently is associated with acute and chronic dacryocystitis. It is primarily due to the buildup of toxic debris on the surface of the eye, including the exotoxin produced by staphylococcal organisms, which normally inhabit the surface of the eye.

Medial canthal fullness and tenderness are common in both acute dacryocystitis and chronic dacryocystitis, which is due to distention of the lacrimal sac and resultant infection of the lacrimal sac. Dacryocystitis usually does not extend above the medial canthal tendon, and the medial canthal swelling should not be pulsatile. Rarely, an occult tumor or cyst can be the cause of the medial canthal fullness.

Tearing is most commonly due to obstructed outflow of the tear system but may be exacerbated by conjunctivitis. Rarely, patients with acute or chronic dacryocystitis have no complaints of tearing but have other sequelae of tear sac infection, including redness, cellulitis, pain, fullness, and purulent discharge.



In congenital dacryocystitis, incomplete canalization of the nasolacrimal duct (specifically at the valve of Hasner) is clearly important in the pathogenesis. However, since the incidence of congenital dacryocystitis is much lower than the incidence of incomplete canalization, factors other than developmental ones appear to play a role in the pathogenesis. Neonatal infection is another important factor in the development of congenital dacryocystitis.

Both aerobic bacteria and anaerobic bacteria have been cultured from pediatric and adult patients with dacryocystitis. The most common organisms isolated from the lacrimal sacs of children with dacryocystitis include Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenzae, beta-hemolytic streptococci, mycobacterial species, and pneumococci. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is more common in patients with acute dacryocystitis than with chronic dacryocystitis.

Structural abnormalities of the midface also should be considered.

Nasal pathology that can predispose to dacryocystitis includes the following: hypertrophied inferior turbinate, deviated nasal septum, nasal polyp, and allergic rhinitis.

Obstruction of the nasolacrimal duct by a tight inferior meatus has been noted in many infants.

The etiology of dacryocystitis includes nasal disease and ectrodactyly-ectodermal dysplasia-clefting (EEC) syndrome, as outlined below.

Causes of nasal disease include the following:

  • Sinusitis (maxillary, ethmoidal)
  • Hypertrophic rhinitis
  • Vasomotor rhinitis
  • Syphilitic rhinitis
  • Rhinitis ozaenosa
  • Adenoids
  • Eczema of nares
  • Purulent rhinitis
  • Nasal trauma
  • Ethmoidal tumor
  • Nasal tumor
  • Atrophic rhinitis sicca
  • Rhinitis fibrinosa
  • Enlarged inferior turbinate
  • Foreign body in the nose
  • Septal deviation
  • Frontal sinus neoplasm
  • Nasal mucosal infection
  • Diphtheria
  • Measles
  • Scarlatina
  • Nasal septal abscess
  • Ethmoidal mucocele
  • Rhinolithiasis
  • Bacterial - Tuberculosis, syphilis, trachoma, Staphylococcus epidermidis (most common), Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Pneumococcus, Propionibacterium acnes, Mycobacterium fortuitum
  • Viral - Infectious mononucleosis
  • Fungal - Candida albicans, Aspergillus niger

Causes of EEC syndrome may include the following:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Lupus
  • Scleroma
  • Plasmoma
  • Leukemic infiltration
  • Trauma - Naso-orbital fractures, LeFort II fractures [3]
  • Postinflammatory stenosis of nasolacrimal duct
  • Graft-versus-host disease
  • Iatrogenic - Caldwell-Luc operation, Lautenschlager-Halle ozena operation, radical maxillectomy, ethmoidectomy, Sturmann-Canfield operation, postpunctal occlusion
  • Lacrimal sac tumor - Lymphoma, fibroepithelioma, transitional cell carcinoma, lymphoblastoma, neurilemoma, angiosarcoma, hemangiopericytoma, pseudotumor, melanoma, metastatic carcinomas, benign polyps
  • Lacrimal sac cyst
  • Postirradiation fibrosis
  • Wegener granulomatosis
  • Facial skeletal anomalies
  • Dacryolithiasis
  • Cilia impaction in lacrimal sac
  • IgG4 sclerosing dacryocystitis [4]
  • Impacted punctal plugs - Studies have documented an increased risk of canaliculitis and dacryocystitis associated with intracanalicular punctal plugs. [5]

In acquired dacryocystitis, obstruction of the lower part of the nasolacrimal system frequently is present. Because of the intimate relationship of the nasolacrimal duct with the nose and paranasal sinuses, these structures are commonly associated as an etiologic factor in the pathogenesis of dacryocystitis.

One of the more common associations, if not a factor in the etiology of dacryocystitis, is ethmoidal inflammation. Because only a very thin lamina of bone is present between the ethmoid air cells and the lacrimal sac, it is not uncommon for inflammation of the ethmoid sinuses to cause dacryocystitis.

An ocular origin for inflammation of the lacrimal system is less common than a nasal origin.

Several cases of obstruction of the nasolacrimal duct by impacted cilia have been described.

Profuse secretion and stagnation of tears in the lacrimal sac, which may occur in uncorrected astigmatism and hypermetropia, may contribute to the development of dacryocystitis.

Most cases of dacryocystitis in adults are caused by stenosis of the lacrimal duct with resultant stagnation of lacrimal fluid and subsequent infection.

Approximately 50% of patients undergoing surgery for dacryocystitis have positive culture results; of these, pure cultures are obtained in 71% of them, with mixed cultures in the remaining 29% of patients.

The bacteriology of dacryocystitis mimics normal conjunctival flora in most instances, as follows:

  • The most common aerobic organisms isolated from the lacrimal sacs in adults with dacryocystitis include S epidermidis, S aureus, and Streptococcus, Pseudomonas, and Pneumococcus species. S epidermidis is the most common isolate followed by S aureus.
  • The most common anaerobic organisms isolated from the lacrimal sacs in adults with dacryocystitis include Peptostreptococcus, Propionibacterium, Prevotella, and Fusobacterium species.
  • Gram-negative bacteria have been reported to occur more frequently in patients with copious discharge. The most common gram-negative bacteria isolated were E coli.
  • Gram-negative organisms account for 27% of the cultured organisms, with P aeruginosa and E coli being the most common.
  • Some studies have found Pneumococcus to be the most common isolate in dacryocystitis.
  • Rarely, fungi have been isolated from infected lacrimal sacs (commonly associated with dacryolith formation).

Dacryolith formation has been noted in 14-16% of patients with dacryocystitis. Patients with a history of acute dacryocystitis have a higher incidence of dacryolith formation than those with chronic dacryocystitis.

When a tumor is present in the lacrimal sac, most are epithelial (ie, carcinomas, papillomas). The most common nonepithelial malignancy is a lymphoma. Epithelial tumors tend to be more common in men than in women, and nonepithelial tumors tend to be more common in women than in men.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Grant D Gilliland, MD Private Practice, Texas Ophthalmic Plastic, Reconstructive and Orbital Surgery Associates

Grant D Gilliland, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, Texas Medical Association, American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD Clinical Professor of Health Sciences, Department of Ophthalmology, Jules Stein Eye Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine

Simon K Law, MD, PharmD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, American Glaucoma Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Edsel Ing, MD, FRCSC Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences, University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Hospital for Sick Children and Sunnybrook Hospital

Edsel Ing, MD, FRCSC is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus, American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, Canadian Ophthalmological Society, North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society, Canadian Society of Oculoplastic Surgery, European Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Canadian Medical Association, Ontario Medical Association, Statistical Society of Canada, Chinese Canadian Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Acute dacryocystitis.
A 2-week-old infant with life-threatening amniotocele causing airway compromise.
Postoperative image of same patient as in Media file 2, 1 year after drainage of amniotocele.
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