Styes, also called hordeola, are abscesses of glands and follicles either outside or inside the eyelid and are usually caused by staphylococcal bacterial infections. Staphylococcal bacteria normally live harmlessly on the skin; around one in three people will have them in their nose, armpits and other parts of the body. Styes form when these bacteria block and colonise eyelash follicles and sebaceous glands around the outside of the eyelid. The meibomian glands inside the eyelid which produce an oily liquid ingredient of tears can also become blocked.
Styes can also sometimes develop as a complication of blepharitis – inflammation of the eyelids – which causes swelling, dryness and itching.
Your eye becomes red and sore, and a lump develops which swells up with yellow pus. Your eyes may also start to water excessively. The eyelid then starts to swell up. If it is inside the eyelid, it may not be visible and will just cause redness and swelling externally.
Styes usually just affect one eye at a time although it is possible for both eyes to be affected.
Most people self-diagnose, and don't tend to see their doctor as styes are minor and self-limiting, and will go away on their own without treatment. But if it is particularly persistent or painful, a GP will be able to diagnose it with an eye examination.
Who gets styes?
Some people are will have recurrent attacks, but the majority will only have one or two in a lifetime. They are more common in people with blepharitis; amongst those who suffer from the red skin condition acne rosacea; and when someone has in-growing eyelashes. Rubbing and touching your eyes excessively may also increase your risk of developing them.
Most styes don't need medical treatment as they will usually rupture and then heal within a week. Antibiotic creams are not recommended.
You can soothe and ease the symptoms yourself by applying a compress to the eye for five to 10 minutes, two to four times a day. Use a warm, clean flannel, which will bring the spot to a head so it ruptures and drains away, healing more quickly. Don't be tempted to 'pop' the pus out yourself as this may damage the delicate eyelid structure or spread the infection deeper.
Other self-help measures include avoiding applying make up to the infected eyes and not wearing contact lenses until the stye has cleared up. Also wash your hands thoroughly and regularly so you don't spread infection.
If the stye doesn't clear up within a few weeks, your GP may consider draining it with a sterile needle. They will normally only prescribe an antibiotic cream if you also have conjunctivitis – inflammation of the thin covering of the eye. If they suspect complications have developed, they may refer you to an eye specialist.
The herbal supplement gingko biloba may be a useful supplement for protecting eye health by increasing blood flow to the area.
Kelp extract is a rich source of iodine, which is beneficial for eye health and is available as a supplement.