Styes — How to Treat Them, How to Avoid Them

Do you sometimes get tender, red swollen bumps at the edge of your eyelids? They’re probably styes.

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And although they can be painful (and almost always uncomfortable), you can take steps to avoid them. If you want to know how to make them go away, there’s good news. In most cases, you can treat them yourself at home.

What causes a stye on your eye?

A stye is an infection in an eyelash follicle or tear gland.

If you scratch or get bacteria in the area, the follicle or gland sometimes gets blocked and infected, according to family physician Matthew Goldman, MD​.

“Styes typically occur on the outside edge or just under the eyelid,” Dr. Goldman says. “They’re bumps that look like pimples, surrounded by redness. They usually last about three days, pop and then heal in about a week.”

What’s the best way to avoid styes?

Contrary to what some may believe, styes are not caused by stress. But some habits can make you more prone to getting styes. These habits can make a stye keep coming back or cause you to have a stye that won’t go away immediately.

To help prevent styes, follow these tips:

  • Wash makeup off before bedtime so eye follicles don’t get plugged overnight.
  • Replace eye makeup about every six months to avoid bacterial growth.
  • Wash your hands regularly when using contact lenses.
  • If you have allergies, don’t rub your eyes.

How to treat styes at home

Styes often look like pimples — making it tempting to squeeze them — but don’t do it. 

“When a stye comes to a head or when it pops it will slowly drain and heal, but you should always let it do that on its own time,” Dr. Goldman says.

You can help the process along by placing a warm, clean, damp cloth on the affected eye for five to 15 minutes a few times a day.

Folding up a damp washcloth and microwaving it for a 10 to 20 seconds can work well. Just be careful the cloth doesn’t get too hot to use on your eyes. It’s convenient as a warm compress because as any edge of the washcloth gets too cool, you can refold for a warmer side.

“The heat allows it to drain on its own,” Dr. Goldman says. “Just continue to reheat the washcloth because it will lose heat over time.”

Over-the-counter ointments and solutions are also available to treat styes, but Dr. Goldman recommends a tried-and-true, inexpensive option for his patients. “Simply wash the eye gently with baby shampoo or a mild natural soap that doesn’t burn your eye,” he advises.

Also, to avoid further irritation and infection, he recommends not wearing makeup or contacts when you have a stye. “You want to keep the area clean and uncovered — cosmetics and contact lenses can prevent this,” Dr. Goldman adds.

If your stye won’t go away

If you are uncertain that what you have is a stye or it isn’t going away after a few days, you might need more treatment. Dr. Goldman recommends checking with your physician if:

  • The stye hasn’t started to improve in a few days.
  • It doesn’t resolve fully in about a week.
  • It gets worse quickly.
  • It grows in size.
  • It bleeds.
  • It affects your vision.
  • It spreads to the white of the eye (a sign of infection).
  • You see redness in the cheeks or other parts of the face (the infection is likely spreading).

If the infection spreads, your doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics or antibiotic drops.

It might not be a stye — know when to see a doctor

“Unusual bumps on the eyes that aren’t red or painful are likely other harmless issues like chalazion (a firm lump in an oil gland in the eyelid) or fatty deposits known as xanthelasma,” says Dr. Goldman.

Like styes, chalazion usually go away by themselves. Xanthelasma are not harmful, but are sometimes unsightly and a doctor can remove them.​

More rarely, skin cancer can sometimes cause bumps in the eye area.

“Styes are generally easily managed and are usually an annoyance rather than a major problem,” Dr. Goldman says. “But if they don’t go away or you have other unusual symptoms, talk to your doctor.”