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What is a stye?

A stye (hordelum) is a lump that appears on either the inside of outside of your eyelid. The lump is usually relatively small, painful and may be filled with pus. It might look like a pimple. A small stye may go on to become a larger swelling/infection called a chalazion.

They can be sore, itchy, crusty, swollen, red and, in the case of larger styes, painful or uncomfortable. Styes inside the eyelid tend to be a lot more painful.

They usually only affect one eye, and while the eye itself will often be bloodshot, sore and watery, in the vast majority of cases you’ll still be able to see.

What causes a stye?

Styes are usually caused by an infection, usually from the staphylococcal bacteria, which can affect areas such as the glands in your eye and the hair follicles of eyelashes. These glands are designed to ensure your eye stays properly lubricated, which is why a stye can cause sore, red eyes.

You should not try to burst a stye as you could risk spreading the infection further, resulting in more than one stye or an infection in the other eye.

If the stye is on the inside of your eye, it could be caused by a blocked meibomian gland, which normally produces a liquid to help keep your eye moist. This gland can become infected, causing a swelling inside your eyelid.

They can also be a byproduct of other health problems, such as blepharitis, which is when you have inflammation of your eyelids.

What are the symptoms of a stye?

The symptoms of a stye include:

  • A pus-filled lump on the inside or outside of your eye
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • A watery eye
  • A crusty eye
  • Itchiness
  • A burning feeling

How long does a stye last?

Most styes only last for a short time and after a few days, the lump will burst, release the pus and start to heal. If it lasts for a longer time, you should see a GP.

Should you see a GP about a stye?

Styes will usually clear up on their own. They will burst naturally and any pus will drain away. While you must never try and squeeze or pop a stye, or pluck an eyelash out of one, there are things you can do to relieve your discomfort and speed up the process, which we’ll cover in the next section.

If you do develop a stye and you are finding it very painful or the swelling is affecting your vision, you should see a GP. The doctor will need to know how long you have had the swelling in your eye and if you have had a similar problem before.

They can take a look at your affected eye over a video consultation and discuss your symptoms to give you a diagnosis. You may need to be referred to an eye specialist if you have recurrent styes or other eye problems that need further investigation.

If the doctor feels that the infection is severe or a chalazion is present, then they may prescribe a course of oral antibiotics.

How can I treat a stye at home?

There are a number of things you can do to treat the stye yourself, these will help reduce the swelling and manage the pain. The majority of styes will go away and heal up completely using self-care methods.

  • Use a warm compress - soak a clean flannel in warm water and hold it against the affected eye for up to 10 minutes, a few times a day
  • Use over the counter pain medications to relieve pain, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol if it is painful
  • Keep the eye clear from makeup to prevent introducing more infection - also make sure you sterilise your makeup brushes if you have a stye to prevent spreading infection
  • If you wear contact lenses, keep them out of the eye until it is fully healed

GP treatment for styes

A stye will usually get better after a few days. If you have a stye that has lasted for a few weeks and isn’t getting better, you should see a doctor.  Some treatments that our doctors may recommend include:

  • Stye ointment or stye eye drops
  • Antibiotic eye drops are generally not recommended unless conjunctivitis is also present
  • Oral antibiotics may be prescribed in severe cases
  • Bursting the stye with a sterilised needle (do not do this yourself)
  • Epilation of the eyelash - which means plucking it out to release the pus (do not do this yourself)
  • Drainage of an internal stye - this will be done under local anaesthetic (do not do this yourself)
  • Refer you to a specialist - If the problem is not a stye or requires further investigation

Preventing styes

Although common, there are some steps you can take to prevent styes. These include:

  • Only washing your face with a clean washcloth
  • Removing eye makeup before going to sleep
  • Ensuring your hands are clean when putting in contact lenses
  • Not sharing towels or flannels with other people