A stye is a small abscess (painful collection of pus) on the eyelid. It appears as a painful lump on the outside or inside of the eyelid.
It is also known as a hordeolum.
Other symptoms of a stye include:
- a watery eye
- a red eye or eyelid
It's not always necessary to see your doctor if you develop a stye, although you should have painful external styes checked.
What causes a stye?
A stye is usually caused by an infection with staphylococcus bacteria (staphylococcal infection).
Long-term blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids) may also increase the risk.
Styes are fairly common and a person may have one or two styes during their lifetime.
Read more about the causes of a stye.
Treating a stye
Most styes get better without treatment within a few days or weeks. External styes may turn into yellow spots and release pus after three or four days. Internal styes are more painful and may last slightly longer.
A warm compress (a cloth warmed with warm water) held against the eye encourages the stye to release pus and heal more quickly.
Further treatment is not usually needed unless you have a very painful stye that is not getting better. In this case your doctor may decide to drain it.
You should never attempt to burst a stye yourself.
Read more about treating a stye.
Complications of a stye
A stye (also called a hordeolum) causes a painful swelling on the outside or inside of your eyelid.
You may also have other symptoms, such as:
- a watery eye (epiphora)
- a red eye and eyelid
A stye normally affects just one eye, although it is possible to have styes in both eyes, or to have more than one stye in the same eye. A stye should not affect your vision.
There are two types of stye:
- an external stye (external hordeolum) – a swelling that appears along the edge of your eyelid, which may turn into a yellow pus-filled spot that is painful to touch
- an internal stye (internal hordeolum) – a swelling that appears on the inside of your eyelid and is usually more painful than an external stye
A stye (hordeolum) is usually caused by an infection with staphylococcus bacteria. These bacteria often live on the skin without causing any harm.
Causes of external styes
An external stye (on the outside of your eyelid) may be caused by one of the following:
- an infection of an eyelash follicle (a small hole in your skin that an individual eyelash grows out of)
- an infection of the sebaceous (Zeis) gland – this gland is attached to the eyelash follicle and produces an oily substance called sebum, which lubricates the eyelash to prevent it drying out
- an infection of the apocrine (Moll) gland – this sweat gland empties into the eyelash follicle; the fluid joins the tear film that covers your eye and prevents the eye from drying out
Read more information about staphylococcal infections.
Causes of internal styes
An internal stye is caused by an infection of the Meibomian gland. Meibomian glands are found on the eyelids and produce a fatty liquid, which makes up part of the tear film that covers your eye.
A stye can be a complication of another condition called blepharitis. Blepharitis causes the rims of your eyelids to become inflamed (red and swollen), which can result in symptoms such as:
- burning or sore eyes
- crusty eyelashes
- itchy eyelids
Blepharitis can be caused by a bacterial infection, or it can be a complication of a skin condition such as rosacea (a long-term condition causing spots and redness of the face).
If you have chronic (long-term) blepharitis, you may be at increased risk of developing styes.
A stye (hordeolum) often gets better without any treatment, particularly after it bursts and has released pus. Most styes should go away on their own within one to three weeks. Do not try to burst the stye yourself.
In the meantime, try the treatments listed below to ease your symptoms.
You can use a warm compress to treat your stye. A warm compress is a cloth or flannel warmed with hot water. Be careful not to use water that is too hot, particularly on children.
- hold the warm compress over the affected eye for 5 to 10 minutes
- repeat this three or four times a day until the stye either clears up or releases some pus
The warmth of the compress encourages the stye to release any pus, which will drain away. After this, your symptoms should quickly improve.
Also keep the area around the eye clean and free from crusting.
If your stye is very painful, painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may ease the pain. These are available over the counter in pharmacies. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure:
- the medication is suitable for you
- you take the correct dose
Aspirin must not be given to children under 16 years old.
When to see your doctor
See your doctor if you have an external stye (on the outside of your eyelid) that is very painful. Your doctor may:
- remove the eyelash closest to the stye – if the stye involves an infected eyelash follicle (a small hole in your skin that an individual eyelash grows out of)
- use a very thin, clean needle to make an incision (cut) into the stye and drain away the pus
Do not try to remove the eyelash or burst the stye yourself.
Your doctor may refer you to an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who specialises in eye diseases) if:
- your stye does not improve after using the above treatments
- you have an internal stye (on the inside of your eyelid) that is particularly large or painful
Your ophthalmologist may make an incision (cut) into the stye and drain out any pus.
Other eye conditions
If you have any other eye condition that may be making your stye worse, your doctor may prescribe separate medication for this, or advise a different course of treatment. For example:
While styes (hordeolums) normally get better without treatment, they may cause some complications. However, these are rarely serious.
Chalazion (meibomian cyst)
If you have a long-term stye on the inside of your eyelid (internal stye), this can develop into a chalazion. Chalazions are also called meibomian cysts. They can develop if one of the glands on your eyelid becomes blocked.
These cysts are normally painless unless they get infected. In this case, you may need to take antibiotics (medication to treat bacterial infections).
Applying a warm compress (a cloth warmed with hot water) to the cyst should help bring the cyst down, although most cysts disappear by themselves. If a cyst does not disappear, it can be removed with a simple surgical procedure carried out under local anaesthetic (the area is numbed).
If the infection that caused your stye spreads to the tissues around your eye, it can cause preseptal cellulitis.
Preseptal cellulitis, also known as periorbital cellulitis, is inflammation (redness and swelling) in the layers of skin around your eye. It can make your eyelids swollen and red.
Preseptal cellulitis can be treated with antibiotics.
Read more information about other eyelid problems.