Conjunctivitis, also called ‘pink eye’, is an inflammation of the outer layer of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. It can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, irritants or allergies. It may require medicated eye drops or ointments.…
What is a stye?
A stye (also called an external hordeoleum) is an infection of a small gland at the base of an eyelash follicle. While the red, swollen lump it causes on the eyelid can be sore and irritating, a stye normally clears up in a few days.
Eyelash follicles have a small gland at their base, called a gland of Zeis, which secretes an oily substance that coats the hair and skin.
When bacteria get into the gland, this can lead to an infection or abscess of the gland. In most cases, bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus are responsible for causing styes.
Blepharitis is a condition in which too much oil is produced by the eyelash glands. This causes redness and inflammation and can increase the risk of developing a stye.
Other types of eyelid lumps
Not all eyelid infections are styes. Strictly speaking, the word 'stye' only refers to an infection of the gland in the eyelash follicle.
Meibomian gland abscess
Meibomian glands are another type of small gland present on the edge of the eyelid. These glands produce an oily substance that mixes with the tears, produced by the lacrimal gland, to help stop the surface of the eye from drying out.
An infection of a meibomian gland is also called an internal hordeoleum and is very similar to a stye, however, the lump will tend to point inwards, towards the underside of the lid, whereas a stye tends to be on the outer side of the lid.
In some cases, a meibomian gland abscess doesn't drain, despite the redness and soreness going away. This is called a chalazion and it is a solid lump in the eyelid that doesn't feel tender.
Blocked sebaceous gland
A blocked sebaceous gland on the skin of the eyelid (just like a pimple) can look like a stye.
Other types of eyelid lumps can include:
- Fluid-filled cysts;
- Papillomas - pink, skin-colored lumps;
- Xanthelasma - raised, yellow areas on the skin of the eyelids, and;
- Skin cancers.
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms of a stye include:
- A red, tender lump on the upper or lower eyelid;
- Red, tender or sore skin surrounding the eye;
- A gritty, uncomfortable feeling, as though there is something in the eye;
- Watering of the eye, and;
- Increased sensitivity to light.
A white or yellow head may appear on the lump. This is pus. Squeezing or trying to drain the pus yourself can spread the infection into the eyelid, so is not recommended.
Methods for diagnosis
A simple examination by your doctor can diagnose a stye.
Types of treatment
Most styes clear up within a few days, but to help prevent the infection spreading:
- Avoid touching the affected area;
- Avoid squeezing or trying to drain any kind of lump on the eyelid;
- Avoid wearing contact lenses, and;
- Avoid wearing eye make-up.
Applying heat to the eyelid by using a warm wet compress can increase blood flow to the gland, helping the body to fight the infection. Placing the compress over the eyelid for 10 minutes, four times a day, can help speed up recovery. Making the compress too hot can burn the skin.
Antibiotic ointments such as, bacitracin and chloramphenicol, may be prescribed by your doctor to help clear up the infection.
For chalazions, injections of steroids such as triamcinolone can help to shrink the lump.
Your doctor may remove the eyelash of the affected follicle to help a stye drain. Alternatively, a small surgical incision or hole may be used to drain the abscess or chalazion.
Potential complications of styes and meibomian gland abscesses include:
Return of the infection
Styes and meibomian gland abscesses can come back and may require further treatment.
Very rarely, infection can spread into the front layer of the eyelid (called preseptal cellulitis) and sometimes into the tissues around the eye (called orbital cellulitis), causing swelling, pain and sometimes fever. Although extremely rare, this can threaten eyesight and is a potentially life-threatening condition, requiring immediate medical treatment.
Most styes clear up within a few days, particularly with warm compress treatment.
People with blepharitis and those who are prone to styes and meibomian gland infections can help to prevent them by cleaning the edge (margin) of the eyelid using eye-cleansing pads.
- Board A. D. A. M. Editorial. Blepharitis. PubMed Health August 14 2012. link here
- . Chalazion. PubMed Health November 20 2012. link here
- . Eyelid Bump. PubMed Health August 14 2012. link here
- Murtagh John MD. John Murtaghs General Practice. 5th Revised edition edition. North Ryde N.S.W.: McGraw-Hill Medical Publishing 2011.
- Orbital and Preseptal Cellulitis | Doctor. Patient.co.uk. Accessed July 8 2014. link here
- Papadakis Maxine Stephen J. McPhee and Michael W. Rabow. CURRENT Medical Diagnosis and Treatment 2014. 53 edition. McGraw-Hill Medical 2013.
- Styes. Better Health Channel. Accessed July 7 2014. link here
FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is a stye?
A stye (also called an external hordeoleum) is an infection of a small gland at the base of an eyelash follicle.
What are the symptoms of a stye?
The main symptom of a stye is a red, tender lump on the upper or lower eyelid. The surrounding skin may be red, tender or sore. The eye may feel like it has something in it and may be especially sensitive to light.
What causes a stye?
A stye is usually caused by an infection of the eyelash follicle by bacteria called staphylococcus aureus.
How is a stye treated?
Most styes clear up by themselves. Regular use of warm compresses can help speed recovery. The doctor may remove the eyelash from the affected gland, prescribe antibiotics or, if necessary, surgically drain the stye. Squeezing or attempting to drain a stye by …
Will a stye clear on its own?
Most styes clear up by themselves. Regular use of warm compresses can help speed recovery.
What can be done at home to treat a stye?
Applying heat using a warm wet compress to the eyelid can increase blood flow to the gland, helping the body fight the infection. Placing the compress over the eyelid for 10 minutes four times a day can help speed up recovery. Making the compress …
Can a stye be prevented?
People with blepharitis and those who are prone to styes can help to prevent them by cleaning the edge (margin) of the eyelid using eye-cleansing pads.
Will a stye keep coming back?
Some people are prone to having styes regularly. Blepharitis, a condition in which too much oil is produced by the eyelash glands, can increase the risk of developing styes.
Are there different types of a stye?
Infections of meibomian glands (another type of small gland present on the edge of the eyelid) produce an abscess very similar to a stye, although they are technically not styes.