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What Is A Stye / Chalazion?

To help reduce the painful discomfort of the acute phase of a stye patients often find relief using acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin). You wake up one morning and notice that your eye is red partially swollen shut and very tender to the touch. Shortly thereafter your eye doctor tells you that you have an external hordeolum – the medical term for a stye.

First of all relax. A stye is one of the most common eye infections. It doesn t take much for the skin of the eyelids to swell. Being highly sensitive tissue the lids swell for the slightest reason usually disproportionate to whatever ails them.


So what s a stye anyway?

At the base of each lash is a hair follicle. Also around the base of each lash are the openings for tiny oil-producing glands. The oily secretions from these glands help to keep the front of our eyes properly lubricated. The problem is the minuscule openings to these glands can become clogged with oils and debris. If they do become closed off the perfect conditions are then created for bacteria to grow – it is dark warm and moist. What comes next is pain redness and swelling or in other words a stye.

Sometimes the bump on your eyelid is actually a chalazion which looks similar to a stye. Whereas a stye affects the eyelid glands a chalazion (called an internal hordeolum) affects the meibomian glands which are located behind the lash follicles. Since it is inside the eyelid it tends to be less tender larger and longer-lasting than a stye. A chalazion also differs from a stye in that it usually does not contain an active bacterial infection; at first it may be red and swollen for a few days but eventually it changes to a painless slowly growing round mass in the lid. The skin around this firm rubbery lump can be moved loosely over the swelling. If the chalazion becomes large enough it can press and distort the corneal surface and cause blurred vision. Though slightly different in terms of structure treatment options are the same for chalazions and styes.

Why me?

Styes are usually caused by the commonly present staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Some people have greater amounts of bacteria living on their lids than others and some have excessive discharge of the mucous glands and are more likely to develop a blockage. If these two conditions co-exist a person is more apt to develop a stye. Also there are things we do that contribute to the blockage of the glands and/or encourage bacterial growth:

  • Improper or incomplete removal of makeup
  • Use of old contaminated cosmetics
  • Poor hygiene - rubbing the eyes with dirty hands
  • Insertion and removal of contact lenses with dirty hands
  • Contact lenses that are not properly cleaned and disinfected

The stye s angry painful phase typically lasts for only a few days. The pain slowly begins to subside and the redness and swelling diminish. Total healing to the point where the lid is completely back to normal can take weeks sometimes months. What persists in these stubborn cases is a small non-tender slightly red nodule.

What to do?

If you have a swollen lid that seems to be especially tender in one localized area chances are very good that it s a stye. It s probably a good idea however to let your eye doctor take a peek just to be sure.

Because a stye is an infection inside the lid and is very well sealed from the outside topical antibiotic creams or drops typically are not able to penetrate very well to the site of infection. However your doctor will most likely recommend that you use heat therapy to help the body s internal defense mechanisms battle against the stye. There are several ways of applying heat to the inflamed eyelid tissues surrounding the stye. One idea that works really well is to heat up a small washed potato in the microwave. This usually gets a laugh from patients but it is quite effective. Don t allow the potato to get too hot you wouldn t want to burn the skin. A small potato works best because you re going to gently hold it against the inflamed area of the lid. A potato works well because it retains the heat for a long time. Hard boiled eggs also work well as do carrots.

Another method is to apply a warm moist washcloth to the inflamed lid. The disadvantage here however is that the washcloth doesn t retain the heat very long making it necessary for repeated trips to the microwave or hot water faucet. Whatever method of heat application you use do it as frequently as possible especially during the acute phase of the stye.

A particularly inflamed stye may actually rupture through the lid tissue and begin to drain. If this happens your doctor may then choose to prescribe a topical antibiotic to help prevent the infection from worsening. Never pick squeeze or probe the stye in any way. If it does begin to drain use a clean wet cloth to swab the area. If the stye doesn t drain and the swelling and pain persist beyond 5 days your doctor may have to help it along by lancing it. Remember lots of heat applied early on is the best way to go.

As previously mentioned topical antibiotics don t seem to help much with styes in the early stages and it s probably a good idea to stay away from over-the-counter preparations. If the stye does get worse and extends to the surrounding tissues your doctor will most likely prescribe oral antibiotic pills to prevent a more serious condition called cellulitis. This progression can take place much more rapidly in children so if your child has a swollen eyelid for more than 24 hours you should see your eye doctor.

Lid hygiene

It s probably a good idea to stop using eye make-up for a while. Since make-up can be contaminated with bacteria there s no sense in taking a chance of introducing even more bacteria to the inflamed area. While we re on the subject of make-up never share it as this is one of the fastest most direct ways of spreading bacteria. Also to help prevent recurrent infections try gently washing the base of your eyelashes each day with diluted baby shampoo on a Q-tip applicator. This will help keep the bacterial counts to a minimum.

Some eyecare practitioners prefer using an over-the-counter product called LID-CARE® a complete system for daily eyelid hygiene. LID-CARE which is sold as pre-moistened towelettes or in a bottle with gauze pads is a special formula that gently removes accumulated oily debris crusted matter and cosmetics from the eyelid and lashes.

To help reduce the painful discomfort of the acute phase of a stye patients often find relief using an over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin).

Finally if you suffer from recurring styes your eye doctor might prescribe a low-dose antibiotic for long-term use.