A stye is a bump that’s usually red and forms on the margin of your eyelid. Styes are not the same as pimples, but they are often compared to pimples because of the way they look.
In addition to the bump itself, a stye may also:
— Be tender to touch.
— Be painful or cause pain in the eyelid area.
— Cause a burning feeling around the eye.
— Cause discharge from the eye.
— Be accompanied by light sensitivity in the eye that has the stye.
There are two types of styes:
— An external stye starts at the eyelash base.
— An internal stye occurs inside your eyelid.
The technical term for a stye is hordeolum. If a stye has been there for a while, it can develop a capsule of scar tissue and become what’s called a chalazion.
What Causes a Stye?
Styes are usually caused by a bacterial infection that occurs within a meibomian gland, says Dr. Tanya T. Khan, owner of Khan Eyelid and Facial Aesthetics in Austin and Dallas, Texas. The meibomian glands are the oil glands that line the eyelid margin near the lashes.
There are about 30 oil glands on the top eyelid and 20 to 25 on the lower eyelid, explains Dr. Andrea Lora Kossler, an ophthalmologist and director of oculoplastic surgery and orbital oncology and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Byers Eye Institute at Stanford University in Stanford, California. The oil in these glands helps to lubricate the eye. These oil glands can become clogged, leading to a stye. The bacteria that reaches those oil glands can come from elsewhere in the body, such as your nose, and be passed to the eyelid area when you touch your eye. Here, the bacteria can grow in the warm, moist area of the oil glands.
A stye also can have causes not related to bacteria. For instance, stress, diet, hormones or the makeup you use could clog the meibomian glands and lead to styes. If you’re stressed or not sleeping well, your immune system may get weaker, leaving you more prone to infections. If you have recurring styes and you have the eye conditions meibomian gland dysfunction or blepharitis, you may need to add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet to improve the health of the eye surface.
Under certain conditions, like stress, “we think the oil our body makes in the meibomian glands turns from a melted butter to a more thicker, toothpaste appearance,” Kossler says. When the oil changes to the thicker consistency, it can clog the oil glands.
[See: 9 Signs of Dry Eye Disease.]
Home Remedies for a Stye
Most styes will go away on their own after a couple of weeks. Home treatment can help many styes improve in appearance within two to four days, Khan says. Here are tips to treat a stye at home:
Place a clean, warm compress on the eye area three to four times a day, 10 minutes each time. This is the standard at-home treatment for styes. It works because the heat opens up the oil glands, making it easier for any clogged material to escape. It may be hard to find the time to relax and apply a warm compress, but the more you can do it, the better it is for the clogged oil gland, Kossler says.
You can use a washcloth with warm water, but those tend to hold heat only for a minute or so. Instead, Kossler recommends taking an old (clean) sock and putting uncooked rice in it — make sure to tie the sock so the rice won’t escape. Next, put the sock in the microwave for 45 seconds. This creates a compress that stays warm for about 10 minutes. You also can find stye treatment compresses online or at local pharmacies that work similarly.
Gently massage the area around the stye for a few minutes with your fingers (after cleaning your hands first). This can help open up the clogged oil gland.
Use over-the-counter pain relievers for any soreness caused by the stye.
Home Remedies to Avoid
— Don’t use essential oils, cautions Dr. Susan Bard, a dermatologist with Vive Dermatology in Brooklyn, New York. Because a stye is located so close to the eye itself, the oils could cause irritation if they get into the eye. They also could lead to a contact dermatitis, or an allergic reaction, on the skin around the eye.
— Don’t try to pop the stye like a pimple. This can make the stye worse.
— Don’t rely exclusively on over-the-counter homeopathic eye drops for styes. Although some people may find they help relieve their symptoms associated with a stye, there isn’t a lot of evidence to support their use, Khan says.
While treating a stye at home, avoid the use of makeup around the eye, just in case the products you use lead to any further irritation. Also, don’t wear contact lenses during the treatment time.
When to See a Doctor for a Stye
If your stye isn’t getting better after a week or two of home treatment, see an ophthalmologist or dermatologist, Bard recommends. If you’ve had styes before and your latest one is painful or bigger than previous ones, see a doctor sooner.
A doctor might inject the area of skin near the stye with a steroid. Sometimes, a larger stye will require surgical incision and drainage. The doctor will make a small incision over the oil gland, which allows trapped material to escape and let the oil gland heal.
A doctor may also prescribe an antibiotic ointment to get rid of the infection that’s causing the stye and advise you to continue to use warm compresses.
It’s important to see a doctor if a stye isn’t getting better over time. There are certain types of eyelid cancers that may resemble a stye. If a doctor suspects cancer, they may perform a biopsy to confirm what it is, Khan says.
How to Prevent a Stye From Recurring
Unfortunately, some people are more prone to styes. If you’ve been diagnosed with meibomian gland disease or blepharitis, this means the oil glands on your eyelid margin aren’t working properly, or they’re not making quality oil, Kossler explains. This can make you more prone to styes. People with a skin condition called rosacea also are more prone to styes.
If you find yourself getting styes regularly, there are a few things you can do to try and prevent them:
1. Massage your eyelid area regularly. Use small, circular movements to help move any trapped secretions that can lead to styes, Khan advises.
2. Remove your eye makeup thoroughly at night.
3. Make sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, Kossler advises. Omega-3 fatty acids help promote a healthy eye surface. Fatty fish like salmon, flaxseed oil and walnuts are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Consider using a heated sleep mask at night. There are special eye masks you can put in the microwave right before bed, and they help heat the oil glands and loosen the oil there, Kossler says. This type of treatment also helps people who use screens all the time and may feel their eyes drying out. Similarly, regular use of warm compresses can help prevent styes.
5. Always wash your hands before touching or rubbing your eyes, Bard advises.
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