A stye is a small, painful lump on the inside or outside of the eyelid.
The eye may also be watery and the eye or eyelid red.
A stye – also called a hordeolum – usually only affects one eye, although it's possible to have styes in both eyes or to have more than one stye in the same eye. Your vision shouldn't be affected.
Styes often get better without treatment, particularly after they burst and release pus.
Don't try to burst the stye yourself. Go to see your GP if you have a stye that's very painful (see below).
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Types of stye
There are two types of stye:
- external stye (external hordeolum) – a swelling that develops along the edge of your eyelid; it may turn into a yellow pus-filled spot that's painful to touch
- internal stye (internal hordeolum) – a swelling that develops on the inside of your eyelid; it's usually more painful than an external stye
What causes a stye?
Styes are usually caused by a staphylococcal infection. Staphylococcus bacteria often live on the skin without causing any harm.
A stye on the outside of your eyelid may be caused by an infection of:
- an eyelash follicle – these are small holes in your skin that individual eyelashes grow out 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
- the apocrine (Moll) gland – this sweat gland empties into the eyelash follicle and helps prevent the eye drying out
Internal styes are caused by an infection of the meibomian gland. These glands are found on the eyelids and produce an oily liquid, which makes up part of the tear film that covers your eye.
A stye can sometimes be a complication of blepharitis, where the eyelids become inflamed (red and swollen). This 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 rosacea (a skin condition that mainly affects the face).
Treating a stye
Most styes get better without treatment within one to three weeks. In the meantime, the treatments below should help ease your symptoms.
A warm compress is a cloth or flannel warmed with hot water that can be held against the affected eye.
Be careful not to use water that's too hot, particularly on children.
- hold the warm compress over the affected eye for five to 10 minutes
- repeat this three or four times a day until the stye clears up or releases some pus
The warmth of the compress will encourage the stye to release any pus, which will drain away. After this, your symptoms should quickly improve.
You should also keep the area around your eye clean and free from crusting.
If your stye is very painful, over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, may help ease the pain.
Always read the manufacturer's instructions to ensure the medication is suitable for you and that you take the correct dose. Don't give aspirin to children under 16 years of age.
Other eye conditions
If you have another eye condition that's making your stye worse, your GP may prescribe separate medication for this or recommend a different course of treatment.
For example, if you have:
Antibiotics aren't recommended for treating styes because there's little evidence they're effective, and styes usually get better on their own.
However, antibiotics may be used to treat complications of styes, such as chalazions (meibomian cysts).
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have an external stye (on the outside of your eyelid) that's very painful. Your GP may:
- remove the eyelash closest to the stye if the stye is caused by an infected eyelash follicle
- use a very thin, clean needle to make an incision in the stye and drain away the pus
Don't try to remove the eyelash or burst the stye yourself.
Your GP may refer you to an ophthalmologist (a specialist in diagnosing and treating eye conditions) if:
- your stye doesn't improve after using the above treatments
- you have an internal stye (on the inside of your eyelid) that's particularly large or painful
The ophthalmologist may make an incision in the stye and drain out any pus.
Complications of a stye
Styes can sometimes cause complications, but they're rarely serious.
Complications can include:
- a chalazion (meibomian cyst) – which can develop if you've had a stye for a long time and a gland in your eyelid becomes blocked
- preseptal cellulitis – an infection of the tissues around your eye
Chalazion (meibomian cyst)
Chalazionsare usually painless unless they become infected. If they do, you may need antibiotics.
Applying a warm compress (see above) to the cyst should help bring it down, although most cysts disappear by themselves.
If the cyst doesn't disappear, it can be surgically removed under local anaesthetic (where the affected 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 in the layers of skin around the eye. It can make your eyelids red and swollen and can be treated with antibiotics.
Read more about other eyelid problems.