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Stye (hordeolum)

A stye is an infection or swelling that can develop on the outside or inside of your eyelid.

About styes

A stye is a pimple or boil on the skin of your eyelid. It’s usually caused by a bacterial infection that affects the glands or eyelash follicle within your eyelid. Glands help to keep your eyes moist by preventing the watery layer on the surface of your eyes (tears) from evaporating.

A stye can appear on the outside of your eyelid (an external stye) or less commonly, on the inside of your eyelid (an internal stye).

  • An external stye is a pimple or boil on the skin at the edge of your eyelid. The pimple points outwards away from your eye.
  • An internal stye develops on the inside of your eyelid. The pimple usually points inwards towards your eyeball.

You can develop a stye at any age but they are more common in young adults than children.

       An image showing a person with a stye close to the eyelashes on the upper eyelid

   Stye

Some people get one or two styes during their lifetime, whereas others may get them more frequently.

Symptoms of a stye

The main symptoms of a stye are:

  • pain
  • redness
  • a swollen lump on your eyelid

Your eye may also water a lot or it may feel like there is something in it.

Depending on whether you have an internal or external stye, you may also get some other symptoms.

  • If you have an external stye, you may notice a yellow, pus-filled spot with a head on it close to the edge of your eyelid. When you touch it, it may feel warm and it’s likely to hurt.
  • If you have an internal stye, you may see a red area on the inside of your eyelid when you turn your eyelid inside out. Internal styes usually develop more slowly and are more painful than external styes.

Usually, you will develop one stye at a time; however, you can have more than one at the same time and you may get them on both of your eyelids.

You probably won’t need to see your GP if you have these symptoms as you can usually manage them at home. However, if they get worse, see your GP for advice.

Complications of a stye

Most styes get better within a couple of weeks (without any treatment) and cause no further problems. However, occasionally, a stye can lead to the following complications.

  • An internal stye can sometimes develop into a chalazion, which is the result of a blocked meibomian gland – meibomian glands are in the middle of your eyelid, with openings just behind your eyelashes. The initial pain from the stye will get better but you will be left with a painless swelling about the size of a pea.
  • Occasionally, a stye can lead to an infection of your entire eyelid and the skin around your eye (cellulitis). If you develop increasing swelling and redness, it’s important to contact your GP.

Causes of a stye

The most common cause of a stye is a staphylococcal infection. Staphylococcal infections are usually caused by harmless bacteria that live on your skin and inside your nose. Occasionally, these bacteria can cause an infection by entering through small openings in your skin or at the edge of your eyelid.

  • An external stye can develop if bacteria infect one of more of the eyelash follicles (the root of your eyelash) in your eyelid.
  • An internal stye can develop if bacteria infect a meibomian gland.

There are a number of conditions that can increase your risk of getting a stye. These include the following.

  • Blepharitis – this is inflammation on the edge of your eyelid, in the area where your eyelashes emerge. It usually affects both eyes and causes irritation and redness.
  • Rosacea – this is a rash that can develop on your face and is common in people with fair skin.
  • Trichiasis – this is a condition where your eyelashes grow inwards and it can increase your risk of a stye.
  • Ectropion – this is where the edge of your eyelid (usually your lower eyelid) turns outwards.

Diagnosis of a stye

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.

Your GP will treat and monitor your condition. However, if your stye doesn’t improve with treatment, he or she may refer you to see an ophthalmologist (a doctor who specialises in eye health, including eye surgery).

Treatment of a stye

Most styes go away by themselves within one to two weeks so you might not need any treatment. However, if your stye doesn't get better, there are several treatments available.

Self-help

A hot compress is a simple, effective treatment for a stye. Soak a towel or face cloth in hot water to make a compress – it should feel comfortable on your skin, not scalding hot. Hold the compress against your eyelid for five to 10 minutes. This will warm the fluids trapped inside your stye and encourage them to drain away. Use a hot compress three or four times a day until the stye gets better.

It's important to keep the area around your eyelids clean and clear of any oiliness or crusting, especially if your stye is related to blepharitis. You can do this by using a small amount of baby shampoo diluted in water. Apply it with a cotton bud along the edge of your eyelid and rinse. If you have blepharitis as well as a stye, don’t wear eye make-up as this could make your condition worse or delay healing.

Medicines

Antibiotics aren’t usually used to treat styes but your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic ointment to apply to the affected area. If the infection has spread and affects other areas of your eye, you may need to take antibiotic tablets.

Surgery

If your stye is very large or it doesn’t get better using other treatments, your doctor may pierce it with a needle, or make a small cut in it to drain it.

You will be given a local anaesthetic for the procedure. This completely blocks pain from your eye area and you will stay awake during the procedure. Your doctor will prick the head of your stye from the underside of your eyelid with a needle or blade. This will release trapped fluids and infection, and allow your eyelid to heal.

If you have a small external stye, your doctor may remove an eyelash if the area around it is infected.

Prevention of a stye

It's common for styes to keep coming back. To prevent them, it’s important to keep the skin on your eyelids clean. Practice good hygiene at all times, even when you don’t have a stye. Keep your eyelids and eyelashes clean and clear of any crusting or stickiness.

If you keep getting styes, it may be that the first infection failed to clear properly or you have another eye condition that puts you at greater risk of developing them. See your GP – he or she may suggest treatment or refer you to a specialist.

 

Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Heath Information Team, September 2012.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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