Your eyelids have 20-25 tiny glands that line the edge of each eyelid.
Usually, these glands secrete sweat and oil that coats the surface of your eyes and eyelashes.
If one of these glands becomes infected or obstructed, a red, swollen bump can develop.
This bump is called a stye, or a hordeolum.
A stye often looks like a pimple or boil and is hot, sore, or tender to the touch.
Styes can be uncomfortable and unsightly, but they are very common.
They can usually be treated at home, and will go away within a few days or weeks.
Styes are usually not contagious, but there are times when you can spread the bacteria that causes them to others.
In this article, I’ll explain more about what styes are, what causes them, and whether they’re contagious.
I’ll also tell you how long a stye usually takes to go away, how you can treat it at home, and when you should see a doctor or health care provider about a stye.
What is a Stye?
A stye is a bacterial infection in your eyelid that presents as a painful red bump or lump on the inner side of the eyelid or edge of the eyelid.
Your eyelid contains more than skin tissue and eyelashes; it also has different glands that help keep parts of your eye moisturized.
Small oil glands called meibomian glands line the inside edge of the eyelid and keep your eyes from drying out.
Moll glands and Zeis glands are also located on the edge of your eyelid and produce oil that helps keep your eyelashes moisturized.
An infection can develop when a gland or follicle in your eyelid gets clogged with dirt, debris, or dead skin cells and can no longer function properly.
Over time, that infection develops into general irritation, pain, or swelling in the eyelid area, eventually becoming a localized, painful bump or red lump at the base of an eyelash or inside the surface of the lid.
Most of the time, styes are caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.
This infectious agent can be found in your nose and on your skin, and causes staph infections in other parts of the body.
Doctors classify styes into two types:
- Internal stye (internal hordeolum): When the oil gland in your inner eyelid becomes infected, these styes form on the part of the inner eyelid that faces your eyeball.
- External stye (external hordeolum): When an eyelash follicle or sweat gland on your eyelid becomes infected, these styes form on the edges of your upper or lower eyelid.
If your meibomian gland is infected, you have an internal stye.
If your Zeis or Moll glands or hair follicle is infected, you have an external stye.
Both children and adults can get eye styes, and those who have already had one are more likely to develop one again.
Some people develop a red, hard, but painless bump on their eyelids.
This eye problem, called a chalazion, is not a stye but can develop because of one.
A chalazion is usually located farther back on the eyelid than a stye might be.
Pink eye (conjunctivitis) is another common eye infection characterized by redness on the white of your eye, tearing, and pus, rather than a small, painful lump.
Are Styes Contagious?
Symptoms of a stye develop when Staphylococcal bacteria enter and infect an eyelid gland or eyelash follicle.
Staph bacteria is usually found on the skin and inside the nose but can be dangerous if it spreads to other body parts.
Although styes are generally not contagious, they are filled with a fluid that contains trace amounts of bacteria.
As the local infection drains and heals, that fluid can spread germs to other parts of the body and other individuals.
You can take a few precautions while treating a stye to avoid causing any undue harm to yourself or others.
- Wash your hands before and after treating your stye
- Wash bedding, particularly pillows and pillowcases
- Avoid unnecessarily touching your stye
- Don’t share towels, washcloths, makeup, or other personal hygiene products that touch your eyes
A stye is generally not considered as contagious as other eye infections, since it is caused by a bacteria that naturally lives on your skin, so you can continue to go to work or send your child to school if they show symptoms of a stye.
What Causes a Stye?
A stye forms when the eyelid’s oil glands or hair follicles become blocked.
Although they are uncomfortable and unsightly, styes are common and usually not concerning.
Researchers are still studying the root cause of styes, but we know that some people are more prone to developing them than others.
Risk factors for developing a stye include:
- Poor contact lens hygiene
- Sleeping in contact lenses
- Rubbing your eyes without washing your hands first
- Excessive exposure to chlorine
- Wearing lash extensions
- Wearing old or contaminated eye makeup
- Not washing your face enough
- Having recurrent eye styes or other eye problems
Certain health conditions can also make some people more likely to develop styes.
- Dry skin
- Seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff)
- High blood sugar or diabetes
- Hormonal changes
- High cholesterol
- Poor or weakened immune system
How Quickly Does a Stye Go Away?
Most styes last between 7-14 days before going away on their own or with the help of gentle at-home treatments.
Stubborn styes may require an ophthalmologist to lance and drain them safely, or antibiotics to make sure the infection goes away completely.
Recurrent styes can be a sign that you have a skin condition or other chronic ailment, so it’s important to tell your doctor if you experience styes often.
A few symptoms indicate that your stye has become a severe condition or immediate medical need.
- A stye that takes more than two weeks to heal
- Eyelid swelling that makes it difficult to see
- Fever or chills
- Severe pain with eye movement or vision changes
If you have any of those challenges or have any other reason to believe that your infection has spread beyond your eyelid, speak with a medical provider or ophthalmologist right away.
Most styes aren’t dangerous and require little to no treatment before they begin to go away on their own.
But if you are bothered by a stye and want to address it, you can do a few things to encourage it to heal more quickly.
- Clean your eyelids gently with simple soap and warm water.
- Place a clean, wet, warm washcloth over your closed eye for 5-15 minutes. Rewarm and replace as necessary, up to five times a day.
- Avoid wearing makeup or contact lenses until your eye heals.
Do not touch your stye or try to pop or squeeze it yourself.
Doing so can rupture the skin and introduce germs to other parts of your face, spreading the infection.
If your stye won’t go away on its own or becomes excessively painful or bothersome, make an appointment with your eye doctor.
They will examine your condition and recommend a treatment option to help address your issue.
Medical treatments for styes include:
- Safely draining your stye in their medical office
- Prescribing antibiotic ointment or eye drops
- Prescribing oral antibiotics
- Injecting a steroid into the stye to reduce swelling
Although you can never prevent styes completely, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing them.
- Wash your hands often
- Wash your face and eyelids every night before bed
- Remove eye make up carefully
- Replace eye makeup every six months
- Change your bedding often
- Clean your contacts with a disinfecting lens solution
- Never wear your contacts longer than is recommended
- Never share towels or eye makeup with anyone else
When to See a Doctor
Styes usually go away on their own, but occasionally they require medical treatment.
If you have a stye that has lasted more than two weeks or feels like it’s getting worse, even after at-home treatment, make an appointment to see an eye doctor.
Also make an appointment if you have any of these symptoms:
- An eyelid that is swollen shut
- Visible pus or fluid leaking from the bump on your eyelid
- Blisters on your eyelids
- Hot eyelids
- Changes in your vision
- Recurrent or stubborn styes that won’t go away
Call your provider or go to your nearest urgent care or emergency room immediately.
Never squeeze, pop, rub or touch your stye, as that can make your infection worse or spread bacteria to the rest of your face.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Anatomy, Skin Sweat Glands. (2021).
American Academy of Ophthalmology EyeWiki: Stye. (2021).
American Academy of Ophthalmology: What are Styes and Chalazia? (2021).