What is a Stye?
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 style 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.
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.
The infection within a stye is caused by staphlococcal bacteria, which is most often referred to as a staph infection. Rubbing the stye may transfer the bacteria from the eye lid to the nose or mouth, allowing it to spread throughout the body. Great care should be taken with styes, making sure not to tough them unnecessarily, and to always wash hands after doing so.
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 over power another persons immune system.
Some safe practices for people with styes is to frequently wash their hands, not touch other people (especially near the face), and to avoid sharing personal items, such as bed sheets, pillow cases, bath towels, or cosmetic products. Doing so significantly increases the chances of cross contamination.
Styes don't usually last very long. From their first appearance to being completely healed, a stye may only last 2-3 weeks. Lasting longer that that is rare. 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.
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 repeatedly as needed for several days, and will help to shorten the life span of a stye.
The warmth of the compress may cause the stye to come to a head, much like a pimple. While this is promising, as it may then rupture and drain, it's important not to apply too much pressure in an effort to expedite the process. After all, eyes are very delicate, and pressing on them may cause more serious problems that could potentially cause vision loss, or even blindness.
The development of a stye may be a one time occurrence for some people, while others may get them repeatedly throughout life. Should they become a persistent problem, steps can be taken that will help lower both their frequency and longevity.
Antibiotic eye drops and ointments can be prescribed to treat a stye once it occurs, but antibiotics should not be taken regularly as a precautionary measure. Special cleaning pads and cleansers are available that are specifically designed to be used on the eyelids. They help to wash away the debris and dried oils that are likely to cause the clogs in the first place. Good lid hygiene helps to reduce the chances of a stye developing in the first place.
Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 12 Sep 2016, Last modified: 4 Mar 2020