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Styes: Causes, symptoms and treatments

photo depiction of an eye stye

What Is a Stye?

A stye is an infection in the eyelid that causes a tender, red bump near the edge of the lid. A stye (also called a sty or hordeolum) is caused by bacteria and can occur at the base of an eyelash (external stye / hordeolum) or within one of the small oil glands within the eyelid (internal stye).

When oil glands or hair follicles get clogged by makeup, dead skin or dirt, bacteria can get trapped inside and cause an infection. This infected gland is called a stye. 

Types of Styes

  1. External stye: A stye at the base of an eyelash.

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

While styes are the result of a blocked oil gland, you may have bumps on your eyelid for other reasons, such as milia, chalazia, a scratch or, in rare cases, cancer. 

What Causes a Stye?

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 follicles — oil glands that drain through ducts into the eyelashes. When the duct is clogged, oil can’t drain and backs up into the gland. The gland becomes swollen and inflamed, causing the stye.

The most common causes of styes are:

  • Touching or rubbing your eye 

  • Inflammation of your eyelid due to blepharitis

  • Using contaminated eye makeup

  • Not cleaning your eyelids or not removing makeup

  • Having had styes in the past

  • Medical conditions such as:

Stye Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms of a stye include:

  • A lump on the eyelid

  • Eyelid pain

  • Redness

  • Swollen eyelids

  • Tenderness

  • Droopy eyelids

  • Eye discharge (crustiness around the eyelid)

  • A burning sensation

  • Watery eyes

After symptoms appear, a small, often painful pimple-like bump 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. If you experience pain in your eye rather than just your eyelid, see your doctor. 

Where Can You Get a Stye?

Styes can occur in several places on your eyelid:

  • Stye on upper eyelid

  • Stye on lower eyelid

  • Stye inside an eyelid

  • Stye under an eyelid

For internal styes, it’s probably best to see your doctor. External styes can be treated at home, but if they persist for longer than a week, you may want to seek medical attention. 

8 Things to Know About Styes

1. Do Styes Cause Vision Problems?

Your ability to see well at either near or distance shouldn't be affected by a stye. If a stye is affecting your vision, see your eye doctor. 

2. Are Styes Contagious?

In most cases, styes aren’t contagious, though it’s possible to transmit the bacteria from person to person. This would require the person with a stye to touch their eye and then directly transfer the bacteria to the eye of someone else.

3. How Long Do Styes Last?

Most styes last 3 to 7 days but can persist as long as a week or two. You can speed up the healing process by applying warm 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 basic home remedies, like warm compresses, some need to be treated medically or drained surgically.

4. Can You Pop a Stye?

Just as you should not pop a pimple, the same is true for an eye stye. You should never pop a stye, but instead allow it 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 open and drain it.

If you have frequent styes, your eye doctor may want to prescribe an antibiotic ointment. 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. What 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”).

6. Are Eye Styes Caused by Stress?

There is no direct evidence that stress causes styes. However, because styes are an infection, anything that compromises your immune system, such as stress or lack of sleep, might make you more prone to them. In addition, lack of sleep often leads to rubbing your eyes more frequently, which can be a risk factor.

7. Why Do I Keep Getting Styes?

If you keep getting styes, it is likely that you have not addressed the risk factors that are causing them, such as poor eyelid cleaning habits, irritated or itchy eyes, rubbing your eyes or not cleaning your contact lenses on the recommended schedule. 

8. How Is a Stye Diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose a stye on sight, and no other tests are needed. 

How Do You Treat a Stye?

There are several things you can do to treat a stye at home:

  • Clean your eyelids

  • Wash your hands often

  • Use an eyelid cleansing pad

  • Stop wearing eye makeup temporarily

  • Wear your glasses instead of contacts

  • Apply warm compresses or a warm washcloth

  • Use antibiotic creams

  • Gentle massage

For more detailed information, see our article on how to get rid of a stye.

How to Prevent Styes

  • Don’t touch or rub your eyes

  • Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer

  • Treat issues that cause itchy eyes, such as allergies

  • Deal with underlying conditions like rosacea, dermatitis or blepharitis

  • Use and clean contact lenses according to instructions

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water, or use a hand sanitizer that contains alcohol

  • Avoid wearing eye makeup, and don’t use old makeup

  • Wear glasses instead of contacts when you can

Should I See a Doctor for a Stye?

Although most styes clear up fairly quickly, don't hesitate to contact your eye doctor for additional advice. Your doctor might prescribe an ointment or a prescription stye medicine to help it heal faster.

Call your doctor if:

  • The stye doesn’t start getting better after a few days

  • The stye keeps getting larger

  • The swelling keeps increasing

  • Your vision is affected

Eyelid bump. MedlinePlus. February 2021.

Seborrheic Dermatitis. National Eczema Association. Accessed March 2021.

Diabetes. Mayo Clinic. October 2020. 

Is it OK to pop a stye? American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). March 2014.

Why does it feel like something is rubbing against my eye when I blink? American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). March 2019.

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