A stye is a small, painful lump (cyst) on the inside or outside of the eyelid.

As styes are usually caused by a bacterial infection, doctors sometimes refer to them as infected eyelid cysts.

The medical name for a stye is a hordeolum.

Styes usually affect one eye, but it's possible to get them in both eyes or to have more than one stye in the same eye. Your vision shouldn't be affected.

This topic covers:

Symptoms of a stye

Types of stye

What causes a stye?

Treating a stye

When to see your GP

Complications of a stye

Symptoms of a stye

The main symptoms of a stye are:

  • a painful yellow lump on or in the eyelid
  • redness of the eye or eyelid
  • a watery eye, in some cases

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 with a very swollen eyelid (see below).

Types of stye

There are two general types of stye:

  • an 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
  • an internal stye (internal hordeolum) – a swelling that develops on the inside of your eyelid; it's usually less 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.

External styes

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

Internal styes can occur when the meibomian glands become infected. These glands are found on the eyelids and produce an oily liquid, which makes up part of the tear film that covers your eye.

If the meibomian glands become blocked, a cyst can develop, which can become infected (see below).

Blepharitis

Eyelash follicle infections can sometimes be a complication of blepharitis. Symptoms of blepharitis include:

  • inflamed (red and swollen) eyelids
  • burning or sore eyes
  • crusty eyelashes
  • itchy eyelids

Blepharitis 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.

Warm compress

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.

You should:

  • hold the warm compress over the affected eye for five to 10 minutes
  • gently massage the area
  • 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.

Regularly using warm compresses as part of your daily routine can also help prevent styes forming in the first place.

Painkillers

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:

  • conjunctivitis – a short course of antibiotic ointment may be prescribed
  • blepharitis – your GP may recommend eye hygiene measures, such as using a cotton bud to clean the rim of your eyelids

Antibiotics aren't recommended for treating styes because there's little evidence they're effective, and styes usually get better on their own.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you've tried the above measures and your stye hasn't got better. 

Don't try to remove the eyelash or burst the stye yourself.

Referral

Your GP may refer you to an ophthalmologist (a specialist in diagnosing and treating eye conditions) if you have a meibomian cyst (a cyst on the inside of your eyelid) that's particularly large or painful.

The ophthalmologist may make an incision in the cyst to drain out any pus.

Complications

Complications of styes are uncommon and they're rarely serious.

Meibomian cysts

Meibomian cysts (chalazions) tend to be painless unless they become infected. If they do, you may need antibiotics (usually an eye ointment).

Applying a warm compress (see above) to the cyst should help bring it down, although most cysts disappear by themselves.

Rarely, if the cyst doesn't disappear, it can be surgically removed under local anaesthetic (where the affected area is numbed).

Preseptal cellulitis

If the infection spreads to the tissues around your eye it can cause preseptal cellulitis.

This is an infection in the layers of skin around the eye. It can make your eyelids red and swollen and is usually treated with antibiotics.

Read more about other eyelid problems.




Page last reviewed: 22/11/2016

Next review due: 22/11/2019