Eye styes: Causes, symptoms, treatments

photo depiction of 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. 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).

Here are seven things to know about eye styes:

  • The first signs are pain, redness, swelling and tenderness.
  • Styes typically don't cause vision problems.
  • Styes are caused by staphylococcal bacteria.
  • Styes are contagious.
  • Most styes heal on their own.
  • Never "pop" a stye.
  • Other eye problems can accompany styes.

Here are more details about these symptoms, causes and treatments for eye styes:

1. The first signs are pain, redness, swelling and tenderness.

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.

2. Styes typically don't cause vision problems.

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

3. 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.

SEE ALSO: Treatments for an eye stye.

4. Styes are contagious, but...

Pretty much everyone has this stye-causing bacteria in their body. We all, at any age, have the potential to develop a stye without outside contamination.

Still, 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.

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

You can encourage 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.

6. 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.

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7. 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").

Chalazia: Bumps that aren't styes

Often mistaken for a stye, a chalazion (shah-LAY-zee-on or kah-LAY-zee-on) is an enlarged, blocked oil gland in the eyelid. A chalazion mimics a stye for the first few days, then turns into a painless hard, round bump later on.

Most chalazia develop farther from the edge of the eyelid, compared with where styes typically occur.

Although the treatment of a stye and a chalazion is essentially the same, chalazia may linger for one to several months. If a chalazion remains after several months, visit an eye doctor to have it surgically removed or injected with a steroid to facilitate healing.

SEE ALSO: What a chalazion looks like.

Other common eyelid bumps

Milia: Also called "milk spots" or "oil seeds," milia are tiny white cysts that may appear under the outer layer of skin on the eyelids and around the eyes and nose. Milia occur when dead skin cells don't slough off normally and cellular debris is trapped at the base of a sweat gland or hair follicle, forming a small, white or yellow bump that looks similar to a whitehead.

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Milia are common in newborns, but adults also can be affected. In babies, milia tend to clear up on their own over a week or two, but most adults will require medical treatment or surgical removal of milia.

The preferred method of removing a bothersome milial cyst is by a simple surgical excision (no stitch is needed) by a dermatologist.

Xanthelasma: This skin condition is characterized by yellowish bumps (plaques) developing under the skin on or around the eyelids.

Xanthelasma (zan-thah-LAZ-mah) generally appear as disc-like lesions with a flat surface and well-defined borders, ranging in size from several millimeters up to three inches in severe cases.

They are caused by a build-up of cholesterol and other fats under the surface of the skin and often are attributed to elevated lipid levels ("high cholesterol") in the bloodstream. Xanthelasma are not cancerous, but elevated blood lipids could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and should be investigated by your doctor.

Xanthelasma can be surgically removed by an ophthalmologist or dermatologist for cosmetic purposes.

Page updated July 2019


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