Few health issues are more frightening than ones related to your eyes. The pink eye you contracted as a kid practically glued your eyes shut and made waking up feel like a real-life horror film. Even the bug that flew directly into your eyeball while you were out on a walk last week may have caused you to freak the eff out. So if you look in the mirror one day and suddenly see a bright red stye on your eyelid that's causing the whole thing to swell, it's understandable to feel mildly panicked.
But luckily, that stye likely isn't as big of a deal as it looks. Here, an eye health expert gives the DL on those painful bumps, including the common eye stye causes and stye treatment methods you can do at home.
What Is a Stye, Anyway?
You can pretty much think of a stye as a pimple on your eyelid, says Jerry W. Tsong, M.D., a board-certified ophthalmologist in Stamford, Connecticut. "Basically, they're bumps on the eyelid that form oftentimes due to an infection, and it makes the eyelid swollen, uncomfortable, painful, and red," he explains. You also might feel as if something's stuck in your eye, experience tearing, or suffer sensitivity to light, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
When you're dealing with an external stye, which develops when an eyelash hair follicle is infected, you might see a pus-filled "whitehead" pop up right along the lash line, says Dr. Tsong. If you have an internal stye, which develops inside your eyelid when the meibomian glands (tiny oil glands along the edges of the eyelids) become infected, your entire lid might look red and puffy, he explains. And just like acne, styes are extremely common, says Dr. Tsong. "At my general practice, I see maybe five or six [cases of styes] every day," he says.
What Causes a Stye?
Though it's chilling to think about, bacteria naturally live on your skin without causing any trouble. But when they start to overgrow, they can settle deep into your eyelash hair follicle or your eyelid's oil glands and cause an infection, explains Dr. Tsong. When this infection develops, the skin becomes inflamed and a stye crops up, he explains.
Hygiene plays a huge role in keeping this bacteria under control, so keeping that mascara on overnight, rubbing your eyes with dirty fingers, and not washing your face can up your risk of developing one, says Dr. Tsong. Even if you keep your lids squeaky clean, people who have blepharitis (an incurable condition that makes the edge of the eyelids inflamed and crusty) may still be more likely to get styes, since the condition means you naturally have more bacteria along the eyelid base, says Dr. Tsong. Though blepharitis is common, it's most often found in people who have rosacea, dandruff, and oily skin, according to the National Eye Institute.
Even when there isn't an overgrowth of bacteria, you can get a stye if your meibomian glands normally produce more oil than the average person, causing them to clog up and become infected, says Dr. Tsong. Your demanding job or energetic puppy who keeps you up all night probably isn't helping your eyelid health, either. "I do tell people that stress can be a factor," says Dr. Tsong. "I generally think that when your body is more out of balance — you're a little more stressed out or not sleeping enough — your body changes [its oil production] and these oil glands tend to get more clogged, putting you more at risk for getting infections."
How to Get Rid of a Stye — and Prevent Them From Popping Up Again
If you wake up one morning with a zit-like lump on your eyelid, whatever you do, resist the urge to pick at it or pop it, which can lead to scarring, says Dr. Tsong. Instead, run a fresh wash cloth under warm water and compress it on the affected area, ever-so-gently massaging for five to 10 minutes, says Dr. Tsong. Doing this stye treatment three to four times a day will help encourage the stye to burst open and release any pus, after which your symptoms should quickly improve, he explains.
You might not feel it happening, but the pus will usually drain out on its own — causing inflammation to go down and the stye to disappear — within two weeks, though warm compresses can help speed up your recovery. Until it's all cleared up, you shouldn't wear makeup or contacts. But if it's still there after those 14 days — or it's super swollen, feels like a rock-hard bump, or it's impacting your vision early on in that timeframe — it's time to book an appointment with your doc, says Dr. Tsong. Getting it checked out by a medical professional will ensure the lump isn't actually something more serious. "Sometimes styes that don't go away could be an unusual growth, something that has to be removed or biopsied to check for cancer," he says. "It doesn't happen often, but it's important to see a doctor [just in case]."
If it is indeed a severe stye, your provider might give you an antibiotic eye drop or an oral antibiotic as a stye treatment, but in the worst cases, they might suggest lancing the stye, says Dr. Tsong. "We numb up the eye, flip the eyelid inside out, and then use a little blade to pop it and scoop out the insides," he explains. Fun!
Once your stye finally disappears, you'll want to practice proper eyelid hygiene practices to keep another one from cropping up, says Dr. Tsong. Make sure to remove all your makeup at the end of the day and wash your face thoroughly, and if you're dealing with blepharitis or want to further protect yourself against styes, regularly give yourself a warm compress or let the water flow over your lids while you're in the shower, he suggests. You can also routinely cleanse your lids with Johnson & Johnson Baby Shampoo (Buy It, $7, amazon.com) — just keep your eyes closed and massage it across your eyelids and on your eyelashes, he says.
Even with a full-fledged eyelid-care routine, you still might develop another stye for no apparent reason, says Dr. Tsong. But at least if that happens, you'll have the toolkit necessary to get your eyelid back to it's normal, lump-free state in no time.