Getting a stye once in a while is a minor inconvenience. But getting them all the time can become annoying fast, and could be an indication that you've got an underlying condition.
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Styes are painful, red, pus-filled bumps that form on the outside of the eyelid. They can crop up when a blockage occurs in the oil-secreting glands (called the meibomian glands) on the eyelid and becomes infected, explains Barrett Eubanks, MD, a Murrieta, California-based ophthalmologist. (A bump caused by an oil blockage that hasn't become infected (and typically isn't painful) is called a chalazion.)
Styes can sometimes develop at random, Dr. Eubanks explains. But certain conditions can put you at risk for having recurrent styes or chalazions. Here are some of the most common offenders and what you can do ease your discomfort and stop the styes from coming back.
1. You Have Allergies
Seasonal or environmental allergies to things like pollen, dust, or mold can leave your eyes red, swollen and inflamed. And that inflammation can make styes more likely.
"The biggest risk factors for styes are inflammatory conditions on the eyelid or the surface of the eye," Dr. Eubanks explains.
The fix: Managing your allergies can help keep levels of inflammation around your eyes lower (not to mention make you feel more comfortable overall). Try to minimize your exposure to allergen triggers and use artificial tears to keep your eyes well hydrated, recommends the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). You can also ask your doctor about prescription eyedrops.
2. You Have Pink Eye
The infection, also called conjunctivitis, is another common cause of inflammation and can trigger the formation of styes, Dr. Eubanks says.
Pink eye is typically marked by redness, itchiness, mucus or discharge and a feeling like the eye has grit in it, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The fix: Most cases of pink eye are viral and simply need to run their course. Applying warm compresses and using artificial tears can ease your discomfort and manage the inflammation while your body fights off the infection (which could take two to three weeks), the Mayo Clinic says. If it lasts longer, see your doctor.
3. You Have Blepharitis
Another inflammatory eye condition, blepharitis occurs when there's an excessive amount of bacteria around the skin of the eyelids. This can cause redness, swelling, itchiness, watery eyes and crusting or dandruff-like flakes around the eyelids — and can increase the risk for frequent styes, Dr. Eubanks says.
The fix: Keeping your eyelids clean and flake-free can prevent the buildup of bacteria and reduce the risk for styes. The National Eye Institute (NEI) recommends cleaning your eyelids daily with warm water and a mild cleanser like baby shampoo.
4. You Have Dry Eye Disease
Dry eye disease can also increase levels of inflammation around the eye, which can make styes more likely, Dr. Eubanks says. The condition, which occurs when the eyes don't produce enough tears, can make your eyes feel like they're itching or burning and make it harder to see clearly, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). You might also notice a lot of stringy, mucus-like bits in your eyes.
The fix: Over-the-counter artificial tears or prescription eyedrops can keep eyes better hydrated, the AAO says. In some cases, surgery to block the eye's tear ducts may also be needed. The procedure, which involves inserting silicone or gel plugs into your tear ducts, helps the eyes retain their natural tears for longer.
5. You Have Dry Skin
Like inflammatory eye conditions, severely dry, flaky skin can also increase levels of inflammation.
"If this dryness and inflammation occurs near the eye or eyelids, its can lead to the development of styes," Dr. Eubanks says.
The fix: Help your skin stay as hydrated as possible. Keep your baths and showers short and use warm water instead of hot, recommends the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Applying an ointment- or cream-based moisturizer after bathing and throughout the day, avoiding skin products with added fragrance and running a humidifier to add more moisture to the air can help too.
6. You Have Rosacea
Rosacea is known for causing acne-like facial flushing and redness, but it can also cause redness, swelling and clogged oil glands around the eyelids and lead to recurring styes, notes the AAO. The condition can also increase the risk for eyelid infections, which can also set the stage for styes, Dr. Eubanks says.
The fix: Steroid eyedrops or ointments can reduce eye swelling related to rosacea, while artificial tears can help keep eyes hydrated, the AAO says. Gently cleaning your eyes with a warm compress and mild cleanser can help too, by keeping the area around your eyes clean and free of bacteria.
7. Your Cholesterol Is Too High
High cholesterol isn't the biggest culprit behind frequent styes or chalazia, Dr. Eubanks notes. But it can be a factor, because "the composition of oils produced in the meibomian glands includes free cholesterol," he explains.
The fix: Getting your cholesterol to a healthy level — below 200 mg/dL — can help reduce the risk for styes. That involves eating a healthy diet low in saturated fat and exercising regularly, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Your doctor may also prescribe a statin if lifestyle changes aren't enough.
8. Your Diabetes Isn't Well Managed
High blood sugar can cause a number of health complications over time, including an increased susceptibility to infections. That could include recurring eye infections like styes, according to Duke University School of Medicine.
The fix: Managing your blood sugar can reduce your diabetes symptoms and minimize the chances for side effects and complications including styes, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you're having trouble controlling your diabetes, talk with your doctor.
How to Treat a Stye or Chalazion
Small styes and chalazia can typically be treated at home. "The goal is to relieve the blockage and allow the buildup of oils to drain out," Dr. Eubanks says.
- Apply a warm compress: The AAO recommends applying a warm compress to your eyelid for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, three to five times per day.
- Use massage: You can also gently massage the area with clean fingers after applying the compress, which can help encourage the blockage to clear.
- Don't squeeze: Resist the urge to pop or squeeze the stye, which could cause the infection to spread to your eyelid.
Styes or chalazia that don't start to clear up within a few days may need to be drained by an eye doctor. The doctor may also prescribe antibiotics for styes to help clear the infection.
When to Call the Doctor About a Stye
It's typically fine to start treating your stye with at-home measures. But the Mayo Clinic recommends seeing your doctor if:
- The stye isn't improving within 48 hours
- The stye gets worse instead of better
- It starts to cause swelling around your entire eyelid or cheek
See your eye doctor too if it seems like you get styes regularly. An ophthalmologist can perform a thorough evaluation to diagnose and treat the underlying condition that's causing your styes, Dr. Eubanks says.
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Eye Allergy"
- Mayo Clinic: "Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis)"
- National Eye Institute: "Blepharitis"
- American Academy of Ophthalmology: "What Is Dry Eye? Symptoms, Causes and Treatment"
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Dry Skin Relief"
- American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Ocular Rosacea"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Cholesterol Numbers: What Do They Mean"
- Duke University School of Medicine: "What Causes a Stye and the Best Ways to Get Rid of One"
- Mayo Clinic: "Diabetes"
- American Academy of Ophthalmology: "What Are Styes and Chalazia?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sty"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.