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Eye Styes: Causes and Symptoms

photo depiction of an eye stye

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What is an eye stye?

A stye (also called a sty or hordeolum) is a localized infection in the eyelid that causes a tender, red bump near the edge of the lid.

There are two types of eye styes:

  1. External: An eye stye at the base of an eyelash.

  2. Internal: An eye stye within one of the small oil glands within the eyelid.

The infection is caused by bacteria and it can occur at the base of an eyelash (external hordeolum) or within one of the small oil glands within the eyelid (internal hordeolum).

What causes eye styes?

A stye is caused by staphylococcal bacteria. This bacterium is found in the nose and is transferred easily to the eye when you rub your nose, then your eye.

Bacteria can cause inflammation or infection of the eyelash follicle, oil glands that drain through ducts into the eyelashes. When the duct is clogged, oil can’t drain and backs up into the glands. The gland becomes swollen and inflamed, causing the stye.

What are signs and symptoms of eye styes?

A lump on the eyelid and swelling of the eyelid are two visible signs of an eye stye.

Symptoms of an eye stye include:

  • Pain

  • Redness

  • Swollen eyelids

  • Tenderness

  • Droopy eyelids

  • Eye discharge (crustiness around the eyelid)

  • Burning sensation

After symptoms appear, a small pimple will develop in the affected area. Usually this is accompanied by swollen eyes. Sometimes just the immediate area is swollen; at other times, the entire eyelid swells.

5 things to know about eye styes:

1. Eye styes typically don't cause vision problems.

Your ability to see well at either near or distance shouldn't be affected by a stye.

2. Styes are contagious.

If you have a stye, you don't want the bacteria within to come into contact with someone else's eye. This might cause them to develop a stye or other infection.

To avoid spreading stye-causing bacteria, keep your eyes and hands clean and don't share pillowcases, bedsheets, washcloths or towels with others.

3. Most styes heal on their own within a few days.

You can speed up this process by applying hot compresses for 10 to 15 minutes, three or four times a day, over the course of several days.

This will relieve the pain and bring the stye to a head, much like a pimple. In most cases, the stye will then open, drain and heal without further intervention.

Though most styes will go away with warm compresses, some need to be treated medically or drained surgically.

4. Never "pop" a stye.

You shouldn't pop a stye like you would a pimple. Allow the stye to open on its own.

A stye that forms inside the eyelid (called an internal hordeolum) might not rupture and heal on its own. Because this type of stye can be more serious, your eye doctor may need to surgically open and drain it.

If you have frequent styes, your eye doctor may want to prescribe an antibiotic ointment to prevent recurrence. He or she also might recommend using pre-moistened eyelid cleaning pads for daily lid hygiene, to reduce the risk of styes and blepharitis.

5. Other eye issues can accompany styes.

With a stye, you may notice frequent watering in the affected eye, increased light sensitivity and a feeling like something is "in" your eye (this symptom is called a "foreign body sensation").

When to see an eye doctor

Although most styes clear up fairly quickly, don't hesitate to contact your eye doctor for additional advice. Your doctor might prescribe a stye ointment or other stye treatment to help the condition resolve more quickly.

If your stye worsens, affects your vision or doesn't go away within a week or so, contact your eye doctor for an in-office evaluation and treatment. In some cases, stubborn styes may require surgical treatment by your doctor, followed by application of a prescription medicine.

READ NEXT: How to get rid of an eye stye

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Reviewer - Vance Thompson

Vance Thompson, MD, FACS, is the director of refractive surgery at Vance Thompson Vision in Sioux Falls, S.D. He also is professor of ophthalmology at the Sanford USD School of Medicine, ... Read more