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Could you have a stye?

5 minute read
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A painful bump near your lash line could be a sign of an infected oil gland. Sounds scary, but luckily styes are easy to treat at home.

Linda Rodgers

By Linda Rodgers

Styes seem to happen overnight. You wake up, and you have a bump that looks like a pimple on your eyelid. It can be red and swollen. It usually hurts. And it can freak you out if you’ve never had one before.

Take a breath. Styes look scarier than they really are. They can even go away on their own. But there are things you can do at home so your eye is back to normal in no time. Here’s everything you need to know about these painful lumps.

What is a stye, anyway?

Eye doctors call it a hordeolum. “A hordeolum is an acute inflammation that’s usually a bacterial infection of the glands of our eyelids,” says Alexander Solomon, MD. He’s a neuro-ophthalmologist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.

These bumps can appear on the outside of your eyelid, called an external stye. Or they can be on the inside of the lid, called an internal stye.

No matter which one you have, they’re caused by the same thing. Something gets plugged up — either an eyelash follicle or one of the tiny glands along the eyelid that secrete oil. That blocked gland or follicle makes it easier for the bacteria that’s always on our skin to grow and thrive, says Dr. Solomon. Then the gland gets infected.

That’s why you see a red, swollen and sometimes pus-filled lump on your eye. And just to make things confusing, sometimes those blocked glands form what doctors call a chalazion. Chalazions grow more slowly, and unlike typical styes, they’re not due to infection. They also aren’t as painful, at least at first.

Who’s at risk for styes?

Anyone can get a stye, but some people are more prone to them. They include:

  • People who have rosacea, a chronic inflammatory skin condition. Rosacea can also affect the eyes, causing more inflammation around the eyelids.
  • People with blepharitis, another inflammation of the eyelids. Usually, people with this condition have flakes or crusty stuff around their eyelashes because they have more bacteria there.
  • People who are in their 60s and older. “As we age, our eyelid glands don’t secrete [oil and tears] as well. Just like everything else, the pumps don’t function quite as well. And that material tends to dry up and be more likely to block these glands,” Dr. Solomon explains.
  • People who’ve had styes before. That’s according to Laine Higa, OD, an optometrist and an assistant professor at Pennsylvania College of Optometry/Salus University in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Stress might play a role, too. “It does seem like it sometimes comes in waves for people,” says Dr. Higa.

How can you treat styes at home?

The key, according to both eye doctors? Warm compresses. A warm, wet (and clean) towel or washcloth will get the pus-filled stye to drain on its own before it causes any more problems, says Dr. Solomon. To make it happen more quickly:

Do it as often as you can. Try for 4 or 5 times a day for about 20 to 30 minutes. “Of course, that’s easier said than done,” Dr. Solomon says. So he tells his patients to do their best to do these compresses as often and as long as they can.

Keep it warmer longer. If you run a washcloth under hot water, it will soon lose its heat. So Dr. Solomon suggests microwaving a heat pack, a sock filled with rice or a baking potato. Then wrap your warm wet washcloth around that. “You don’t want to burn yourself, but you do want to keep it nice and toasty,” he says.

Ditch your contacts — and eye makeup. Both can introduce more bacteria to the stye and make the infection worse.

Never pop or squeeze the stye. It can cause the infection to spread, says the Mayo Clinic. And be sure to wash your hands before applying the compress.

How to prevent more styes

You want to keep those glands open, especially if you have blepharitis.

Keep your eyelids clean. “If you don’t clean that area, then you can have bacteria buildup and dead skin,” notes Dr. Higa. Twice a day for 10 or 15 minutes, apply a warm compress to your eyes, Dr. Solomon recommends. Do it in the morning and at bedtime.

Or put a little baby shampoo on a washcloth or cotton ball and wipe it along your eyelids, says Dr. Higa. Baby shampoo won’t irritate your eyes, but it will keep everything clean. You can also use those over-the-counter (OTC) eyelid wipes available at drugstores.

Try taking fish oil supplements. “Perhaps one of the reasons these glands aren’t secreting as well is that we are lacking in certain essential fatty acids,” explains Dr. Solomon. Taking omega-3 supplements (the specific fat found in oily fish) could keep your eye glands lubricated. Bonus: Studies show that taking them helps people with dry eyes and blepharitis. That’s per the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

You can find a wide variety of laboratory-tested supplements at the Optum Store.

Clean your contact lenses. When you take your lenses out and store them, remember to keep them clean. And always wash your hands before putting lenses in and taking them out.

Wash your face. And remove any eye makeup before going to bed.

When to see a doctor

Call your eye doctor (either an optometrist or ophthalmologist) if you see the following signs:

  • The stye is getting bigger, redder and seems to be spreading, says Dr. Solomon. Or it’s interfering with your daily life.
  • Less common: Your eye swells shut and you have a high-grade fever and double vision, says Dr. Higa.

These are both clues that the infection is getting worse. Treatments include:

Antibiotics: Either oral or topical ointments can clear the infection. Usually, doctors prescribe oral antibiotics because they penetrate better than the ointments, says Dr. Higa.

Steroid injections or surgery: If antibiotics don’t work, there are 2 other treatments that will help. An eye doctor will inject steroids into the stye (or chalazion) to bring down the inflammation or make a small cut in it to drain the pus, says Dr. Solomon.

Chances are, you won’t have to deal with steroid injections or even antibiotics. A warm compress will do the trick, especially if you keep doing it several times a day. And pretty soon, your baby blues (or browns or greens) will look the way they always did.

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Additional sources
Treating at home: Mayo Clinic (n.d.). “Stye”
Omega-3s: American Academy of Ophthalmology (2020). “The Benefits of Fish Oil for Dry Eye”