A stye is a common infection that affects the eyelids. While they are usually nothing to worry about, a stye can be pretty unpleasant, sometimes causing pain and often making the sufferer feel self-conscious as your eyes are not exactly an area you can keep discreetly covered.
If you’re suffering with a stye, Dr Roger Henderson looks at stye causes, symptoms and treatment tips:
What is a stye?
A stye (also known as a hordeolum) is common bacterial infection arising from the follicles of the eyelashes in the eyelids. Typically affecting children more commonly than adults, these usually develop quite quickly and can vary in size.
It is uncommon (but not impossible) for both eyes to be affected at the same time although more than one stye can occur on the same eye. Styes are sometimes associated with another condition called blepharitis, where there is inflammation of the eyelash roots and associated dandruff-like flake formation.
There are two types of stye, external and internal:
• External stye
It is the external type that is the most common. These appear as a small, tender red spot with a pus-filled white or yellow centre on the edge of the eyelid, with associated reddening, swelling and discomfort around it.
• Internal stye
With an internal stye, the infection comes to a head on the inner eyelid and so presses against the eyeball causing discomfort and the feeling of a lump in the eye. This type of stye arises from infection of a gland in the eyelid known as a meibomian gland.
What causes a stye?
In most cases styes have no obvious cause, although they are more likely to develop in people who rub their eyes a lot, or in people who suffer from the condition blepharitis where the eyelids become dry and itchy. The usual bacteria involved is a very common skin germ called Staphylococcal aureus which affects the base of the eyelashes and causes inflammation and infection.
Most styes will go away by themselves within 7-10 days but there are ways of treating them to ease symptoms and help speed up recovery.
10 ways to treat a stye
For most people with a simple stye, no treatment is necessary. The stye will come to a head within 2-4 days and then usually bursts before healing. However, the following tips may help:
1. Try a warm compress
Stye recovery can be helped by using warm compresses and cleaning the eyelashes with a moist cotton bud twice a day. The warm compress helps to draw the pus to a head as well as easing any soreness and inflammation. This can be easily done yourself by holding a clean warm (or hot but not scalding) flannel firmly against the closed affected eye three to four times in a 24 hour period, for 5-10 minutes each time. Eventually, the stye bursts (usually with little pain) and drains away.
2. Use a warm teabag
Some people find that using a warm tea bag instead of a warm cloth compress can be just as effective, and tea comes with proven antibacterial properties that may help to reduce the swelling. Always wait until the teabag has cooled before applying, and use a separate teabag for each eye to avoid cross-contamination.
3. Stye medical treatments
Stye medical treatments include plucking out an eyelash, cutting open the stye or draining it away, so if you struggle with persistent styes ask your GP for advice.
4. Stye epilation
Plucking an eyelash out with tweezers (called epilation) encourages the stye to discharge its pus and drain it away. It can be briefly uncomfortable but it is usually effective. Epilation should only be carried out by a medical professional.
5. Incising and draining a stye
Incising and draining an external stye is rarely required, and is similar to lancing a boil. A scalpel or sterile needle nicks the stye to open it, and the pus is drained out of it. Do not attempt this yourself as you may make the infection worse.
6. Can antibiotics treat a stye?
The routine use of antibiotics in treating styes is not recommended. However, draining an internal stye requires a local – and occasionally a general – anaesthetic as it is an uncomfortable procedure. Once numb, the eyelid is turned inside out and the stye then scraped away before a course of antibiotic eye drops are used to help prevent further infection developing.
7. Always use fresh towels and flannels
If you have a stye, always use your own towels and flannels until it has cleared and do not share them with anyone else. Although styes are not usually very contagious, this helps reduce the chances of any infection being passed on.
8. Avoid contact lenses
If you wear contact lenses, do not use these until a stye has cleared up as bacteria from the stye can easily infect these and spread the infection. Wear glasses instead when a stye is present.
9. Maintain good eye hygiene
Always make sure you wash your hands before and after touching your eyelids, and if you suffer from blepharitis make sure you clean your eyelids every day using a cotton bud dipped in warm water and mild soap.
10. Avoid eye make up
Avoid wearing makeup if you have a stye. This can irritate the eye – especially mascara – and you can transfer infection to your makeup brushes and other tools, making it more likely to infect the other eye.
⚠️ Do not try to squeeze a stye like a spot – this can often end up making it worse and can lead to infection.
When to see your doctor about a stye
Contact a health professional if your eye becomes increasingly red, painful, or your vision becomes blurred or altered. You should also seek medical advice if you have an internal stye, or an external stye becomes bigger, more painful or doesn’t clear up with simple home treatment. If styes become a recurring problem then tell your doctor as this may be a sign of an underlying condition such as conjunctivitis or blepharitis.
Stye potential complications
One extremely rare complication of a stye is if the infection spreads to involve the whole eyeball and the surrounding tissues. This is called orbital cellulitis, and is a medical emergency. Symptoms include a painful, red and swollen eye with an associated fever and sometimes sensitivity to bright light. If orbital cellulitis develops then treatment is with intravenous antibiotics given via a drip in a hospital.
Last updated: 26-03-2021
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