Styes are a common ailment, but until the twentieth century, folks didn't really even know what a stye was. They just wanted the tender bump to go away. The superstitious remedies devised to treat styes were often no more effective than sorcery: Rub a gold wedding ring or a black cat's tail against the sty. Lay a cold tea bag on it or dab it with egg whites. Hold a wooden spoon against it or sweep a broom across it.
So what is a stye, anyway? It appears as a small, well-defined swollen mass arising from blocked glands in the eyelid.
A stye on the eyelid itself occurs when a gland blocked with oil secretions (sebum) becomes inflamed. These oil-producing glands are called meibomian glands after the seventeenth century anatomist Heinrich Meibom, who first described them. Each of our eyelids has about 100 of these glands.
Whether they arise at the eyelid margin or on the lid itself, styes are small, painful lumps or bumps. A stye may cause the following other symptoms as well:
- Eyelid redness or tenderness (blepharitis)
- Increased tearing
- A scratchy or gritty sensation, as if you have something in your eye
- Sensitivity to light
- Discomfort when blinking
Styes and other eyelid lesions
A stye is usually an uncomplicated, pimple-like lesion (lump or growth) that develops quickly but disappears within a few days. It’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, and perhaps unsightly, but otherwise harmless. The swelling is caused by an infection, usually with Staphylococcus aureus. This common bacterium, called "staph" for short, is found on everyone’s skin and will multiply when given an opportunity, such as a break in the skin. Other pathogens (infectious organisms) may infect styes as well.
Having some health conditions increases your risk of developing a stye or other benign eyelid lesion:
- Familial hypercholesterolemia (an inherited disorder of high cholesterol)
- Certain cancers
- Primary biliary cirrhosis (inflammation of the bile ducts of the liver)
- Seborrhea (an itchy rash or scaly patches on the skin or scalp)
- Chronic illnesses that are debilitating or compromise the immune system
A stye is no mystery diagnosis--your vision care provider can tell what it is just by looking at it. No lab tests or special instruments are needed.
Treatment and Care
Most styes can be treated by applying a warm washcloth for 10 minutes several times a day. Doing so will help the stye rupture and drain on its own, as well as provide pain relief. An over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotic cream or ointment may be applied, or your doctor may prescribe a similar topical (applied to the skin) antibiotic.
If you have a stye remember the following points to ensure effective self-care:
- See your vision care provider if the lump or spot on your lid does not go away on its own in several weeks. Do not squeeze, press, or pinch it. Drainage should be accomplished only by a healthcare professional.
- See your vision care provider if it reappears, since recurrence of a stye or spread of an infection is possible.
- Refrain from using eye makeup if you have a stye, and replace your cosmetics at least every 6 months even when your eyes and skin are healthy.
- Do not wear your contact lenses if you have a stye.
- Styes are not contagious, but certain other kinds of eye infections are; it's good practice not to not share cosmetics, washcloths, or towels with others.
- Wash your hands and face frequently and try not to touch your eyes. Styes can’t be prevented with hexes or chants--soap and warm water are your best bet.