Eye Health Central

What is a Stye? symptoms and treatment

What is a Stye? Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

A stye is a swollen and infected meibomian gland within either the upper or lower eyelid. These glands normally secrete small amounts of an oily liquid that helps lubricate the surface of the eye, and prevent tears from evaporating too quickly. When these glands become clogged, they can fill with this fluid and become infected. A stye is not very dissimilar to a common pimple.

The medical term for a stye is hordeolum. They will first appear as a small red bump on the eyelid, and may or may not be uncomfortable and painful. Over time, both the eyelid and the stye will swell, with the stye growing many times larger. Some can expand to over a centimeter in diameter, and become incredibly painful.


Can A Stye Affect Your Vision?

Aside from the possible obstruction caused by the swelling, styes don't affect visual acuity at all. The problem is isolated to the eyelid, and not the eye. There is a small chance the infection may spread if the stye pops and drains, but that is unlikely. In nearly all cases, a person's ability to see normally is not affected by the development of a stye.

Is A Stye Infectious?

The infection within a stye is caused by staphlococcal bacteria, which is most often referred to as a staph infection.

It is possible for a stye to be contagious, but it's not as communicable as some might assume. The staphlococcal bacteria within the stye are present in our bodies from birth, and the human immune system usually does a good job of keeping the body well protected. However small variations in individual strains of the bacteria, as well as the high concentrations found within the stye may be enough to overpower another person's immune system.

How To Prevent A Stye Spreading

Rubbing a stye may transfer the bacteria from the eyelid to the nose or mouth, allowing it to spread throughout the body. If you suspect you have a stye you should take the following precautions to prevent it from spreading to other areas of your face or passing the infection on to others.

  • Frequently wash your hands in warm soapy water. 
  • Avoid touching your eyes.
  • Wash Pillows and Bed Sheets regularly.
  • Avoid touching other people around the face.
  • Do not share facecloths or towels.
  • Stop wearing contact lenses until the stye has cleared up.
  • Avoid wearing makeup until the stye has cleared up

How long do Styes Last?

Styes don't usually last very long. From their first appearance to being completely healed, a stye may only last 1-2 weeks, normally after 3-4 days the stye will slowly start to drain itself, clearing up on its own after 10 -14 days.
In the event that the infection subsides, but the Meibomian gland does not drain, the resulting mass is called a chalazion. This is essentially a dormant stye that is no longer infected, but still filled with fluid. This may drain on its own over time, or may need to be excised by a doctor.

Moorefield's Eye Hospital has a helpful patient information leaflet on styes which you can view and download

Both styes and chalazia often respond well to the application of warm, damp cloths. These help to loosen the clog and allow the contents to slowly drain. This can be repeated as needed for several days, and will help to shorten the life span of a stye.

How To Treat A Stye

Medical treatment is not normally required for a stye, they can be easily treated at home, styes respond well to warmth and massage, this may be where the old wives tale comes from that you should rub a gold ring on a stye, whilst not very scientific and with no proof that gold will actually cure your stye, the rubbing motion will create some warmth helping to soften the puss allowing it to drain more easily, which can also reduce the pain. We would not suggest you use your wedding ring or any ring for that matter to relieve pain or treat a stye but follow these few home remedies to help speed recovery and relieve pain.

  • Use a warm compress- stye responds well to warmth, close your eyes and place a warm clean cloth over your eyes for 5-10 minutes, the warmth will help free up the pus allowing it to drain more easily, you can also use a warm teabag, just make sure it's not too hot.
  • Massage the area gently, and wash your hand in warm soapy water, when dry gently massage the area of the stye- this will help loosen built-up pus and speed up drainage and healing. Wash your hands when you have finished to prevent the spread of the infection.
  • Bathe your eye with a clean cloth and warm soapy water, this will help both with cleaning the eye and relieving pressure
  • Avoid makeup
  • Remove contact lenses and wear glasses until the stye has cleared up.
  • Take regular painkillers such as Paracetamol or Aspirin.

Can You Pop A Stye?

You should never pop or lance a stye yourself as this will lead to an open wound and may lead to further infection.

Can you get a Stye More Than Once?

The development of a stye may be a one-time occurrence for some people, while others may get them repeatedly throughout life. 

Should styes become a persistent problem, steps can be taken that will help lower both their frequency and longevity.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eye drops or ointments to treat a reoccurring stye, but the best "treatment" is prevention. Special cleaning pads and cleansers are available that are specifically designed to be used on the eyelids, they help wash away the debris and dried oils that are likely to cause the clogs in the first place. 

If you do find yourself having repeated styes or if you have a stye that won't heal or suffer any vision impairment then see your GP or Optometrist for help and advice. 

Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 12 Sep 2016, Last modified: 20 May 2024