Eye Stye: The Complete Medical Guide
Learn what you can do at home to relieve symptoms of styes and when it's necessary to seek medical attention.
Styes, also called hordeola, are bacterial infections that lead to the obstruction of oil-producing glands around the eyelashes or eyelids. Styes appear as small bumps on the upper or lower eyelids, eyelashes, or conjunctiva. They occur in both sexes and to all ages. Styes are usually harmless and will go away on their own within one to two weeks when your body fights off the infection. To prevent a stye in the eye always wash your hands before touching your eyes and maintain good eye hygiene, especially if you wear contact lenses.
Many people confuse styes with chalazion. The two types of infections are similar; the difference is that chalazion develop under the skin and never appear with a head, while styes look like a pimple on the eyelid. Also, a chalazion is not painful and usually not accompanied by redness or tenderness.
- Redness accompanied by slight pain and tenderness
- Swelling that usually appears as a bump. The head of the stye may be on the outer eyelid or underneath the eyelid
- Discomfort when blinking; gritty feeling in eye
- Sensitivity to light
What Causes a Stye?
Styes are caused by a bacterial infection, most often staphylococcal, in a hair follicle or a gland in the corner of the eye. Children frequently get styes from rubbing their eyes with dirty hands. Certain risk factors can increase your chances of developing styes. Risks include:
- Previous styes
- Chronic skin problems
Are Styes Contagious?
Although the stye is not contagious, the bacteria causing it is contagious. The staphylococcus bacteria lives on the skin and mucous membranes of humans and most animals. Normally this particular bacterium does not cause problems with the body, but when it enters the oil glands in the eyelids, it can cause pain, inflammation, and the development of styes.
In most cases the bacteria enters the eye area when you rub your eyes with dirty hands. Styes are common in children for this reason. The bacteria blocks the oil glands, preventing the oil from being secreted, and a stye soon develops. You can pass the bacteria to another person through contact, but the bacterias will not necessarily manifest into a stye.
Diagnosing a Stye
A stye will often heal on its own within a couple days. If it does not, you should see your eye doctor for a complete eye exam to determine whether another eye problem, such as blepharitis, is causing the stye.
A stye can be treated at home or by your health care provider. Typically, you will be directed to apply warm compresses to your eyelid to relieve pain and inflammation. Warm compresses may also accelerate the healing process. Apply the compresses for 10 minutes and repeat as often as needed. Contact lens wearers are asked to refrain from wearing their lenses until the stye and infection are gone. Never squeeze a stye; it will eventually open and drain the pus on its own. If you seek medical treatment, you may be prescribed an antibiotic ointment or cream to fight off the infection.
In most cases, the infection heals on its own, and drainage occurs about two days after the head appears, or within a week of the appearance of symptoms such as tenderness and redness. Styes are usually recurrent, even with treatment, so you should take preventive measures to reduce the risk of recurrence. In some cases surgical draining of the stye may be necessary to help heal the infection.
Alternative stye treatment options include:
- Ocusoft: Good for wiping the eyelids daily. Follow instructions on package.
Preventing Eye Styes
Unfortunately there are no specific preventive measures. Keeping your eyelids and eyelashes clean is important. To do this, add three drops of baby shampoo to a small glass of warm water. Soak a clean cotton ball in the solution, then gently scrub both eyelids for 30-60 seconds with eyes closed. Rinse with cool tap water. Additional general preventive steps include:
- Avoid sharing eye make-up with others
- Avoid sharing towels and other linens such as pillowcases and washcloths
- Visit your eye doctor regularly
- If you have a medical condition, visit your health care provider often to ensure that your condition is under control
- Begin treatment as soon as symptoms develop; contact your eye doctor for specific instructions
- Do not touch or rub your eyes, especially if you have a stye
Occasionally complications may develop from a stye. Typically this occurs when preventive measures are not taken. For example, the bacterial infection may spread to other parts of your body, including other glands in the eyelid, if you open the head of the stye before it opens on its own. Another complication of eye styes is their tendency to recur. The infection may not respond well to treatment, which may contribute to frequent recurrence.
Some styes may not open and drain on their own within two days of the head’s appearance. Self treatment may not be sufficient, and the pain may increase until medical treatment is needed. Contact your eye doctor or health care provider immediately if the stye lasts more than two weeks or if vision changes occur.
Talking to Your Eye Doctor
Here are some questions to ask your eye doctor about styes:
- Are there any over-the-counter products that may reduce symptoms of a stye?
- Which over-the-counter products should I avoid? Why?
- If new symptoms develop, such as a fever or nausea, what should I do?
- What are my treatment options? What options do I have if these fail?
- How long should it take for the stye to heal?
- How long should I wait to contact you if symptoms do not go away?
- S. Moore, MD; S. Yoder, MD “Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery” (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2006) 622
- J. Anshel, MD “Smart Medicine for Your Eyes” (SquareOne Publishers, 2011) 312-314
- J. Lavine, MD “The Eye Care Sourcebook” (Contemporary Books, 2001) 64-66
- R. Abel, Jr., MD “The Eye Care Revolution” (Kensington Books, 2004) 265-266