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Styes in your eyes

Many of us have experienced having a stye in our lifetime, and whilst they are rarely a sign of anything serious, they can cause discomfort for us and can have an impact on our confidence due to their appearance.

Roshni Patel, BSC (Hons) MCOptom reveals the truth about styes, the causes of them and some advice on how to help treat them and protect yourself from developing one.

What is a stye?

Styes are painful bacterial infections of a hair follicle in the eye or of an oil gland, resulting in a small, painful lump inside the eyelid or around the eye. In many cases, they may be swollen and red, and may also be filled with yellow puss.

Styes usually affect one eye at a time, and should not affect your vision directly. They’re usually harmless and fade on their own if treated with care. Symptoms of a stye can include the following:

  • Yellowish discharge/pus
  • A gritty feeling in the eye
  • Eye watering
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Feeling like there is something in your eye
  • Crust forming around the edge of the eyelid

If it’s the eye or eyelid that is swollen and red, however, and if the eye is watery, it may instead be conjunctivitis or blepharitis. If the lump is hard, but isn’t painful, it’s more likely to be a chalazion.

What causes a stye?

Styes result when a hair follicle or oil gland becomes clogged, often with dead skin cells, and bacteria trapped inside causes the infection, leading to a visible and uncomfortable stye. They’re also called hordeolum by doctors.

As a stye develops as a result of bacteria, touching and rubbing your eyes is the most common way for this to happen, so it’s important to ensure your hands are always clean when touching your eyes. In addition contaminated eye makeup can cause styes, as well as also leaving makeup on overnight. Skin and medical conditions whilst more uncommon can cause this infection, including having diabetes, rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis.

How to get rid of a stye

Styes will largely go away on their own after a short time provided you keep them clean. To assist with the process, you can use a warm compress: dampen a flannel in warm water and hold it against the eye for five to ten minutes, three to four times a day. 

Do not attempt bursting the stye or removing any trapped eyelash yourself, as this can spread the infection and make the situation worse. If it’s painful, you can use pain medication such as ibuprofen to treat it.

While you have a stye, and indeed in general, it’s important to avoid sharing any eye care products or using the same one across both eyes, as you could spread the infection to others or to your other eye.

Similarly, wash your hands thoroughly before touching your eyes to avoid transferring bacteria to or from your hands.

If styes persist beyond five days, you may wish to consult a GP or optometrist, who will investigate and may prescribe antibiotics or steroids to promote healing.

Contact lenses and styes

Styes can develop as a result of improperly cleaned and cared for contact lenses as they allow your eyes to be exposed to more infection. This risk can increase if you touch your contact lenses before washing your hands, reuse disposable contacts, use contacts after their expiry date and also wearing them whilst sleeping.

While you have a stye, it’s recommended that you avoid wearing contact lenses as if the stye bursts it can cause bacteria to get trapped under the lens, where it can spread further and cause more significant problems. It may also be more uncomfortable or make it harder to put in or remove the lenses.

If a stye develops while wearing contact lenses, for example overnight while wearing long-term lenses, it’s recommended to take them out until the stye heals.

As a related matter, aim to regularly clean your glasses with warm soapy water and a microfibre cloth, as bacteria can build up on them and cause infection - and if your stye bursts it can spread the bacteria to the glasses and possibly cause further styes as a result.

Maintaining eye hygiene and health to prevent styes

While styes are largely harmless and pass quite quickly, they are unpleasant and often uncomfortable, as well as the negative cosmetic effect.

Here are a few ways you can reduce the likelihood of getting styes:

  • Maintain good eye hygiene: use warm water and a damp flannel to gently wipe any excess oil and dead skin cells from the eyelid to avoid any build-up.
  • Remove makeup regularly: leaving makeup on, especially around your eyes, can contribute to bacteria becoming trapped and can cause infection, leading to styes.
  • Change eye makeup regularly: as well as the makeup on your face, it’s recommended that you throw away and replace eye makeup roughly every three months, as bacteria can enter it and reach your eyes as a result. You should also throw away any expired eye makeup. Please see the recommended amount of time to use eye products to reduce your risk of infection.

Eye makeup product

Length of time to use

Mascara used daily

Change every three months

Mascara used only occasionally

Change every six months

Liquid eyeliner

Change every three months

Eye pencil

Change every two/three years

  • Wash your hands before touching your eyes: your hands pick up bacteria over the course of the day and touching your eyes can transfer it to your eyes, where it can become trapped and cause styes to form. Wash your hands thoroughly before touching your eyes and if possible before touching your glasses.
  • Recurring styes: If you regularly develop styes, consider diluting mild baby shampoo in warm water and using a cotton bud to gently brush it along the base of the eyelashes. This will clean off any buildup and help prevent infection.

Roshni Patel, BSC (Hons) MCOptom, adds

‘Many of us will experience a stye at some point in our lifetime, and for the most part, they are harmless despite causing slight discomfort and pain. Styes can also make people feel conscious due to the physical appearance of the stye, however symptoms should clear up within a week of showing. 

It’s important that we ensure our hands are clean when touching and rubbing our eyes, particularly when we are tired as we are more prone to doing this then. In addition for contact lens wearers it’s crucial to keep our lenses clean to stop any eye infections developing, including a stye. Simple habits such as regularly changing eye make up products and washing our hands are some of the most effective ways we can reduce our chances of developing a stye.’