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Ask The Expert: What is a stye and how is it treated?

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Answers provided by Dr. Mitchell Gossman, M.D., ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota, St. Cloud

What is a stye and how is it treated?

Think of a stye as basically being a pimple in the eyelid. The eyelids each contain about 20 glands (meibomian glands) that secrete oil onto the surface of your eye. This coats the eye and reduces tear evaporation so your eyes don’t dry out. The glands can become obstructed in some people for reasons that are poorly understood, and the obstruction triggers inflammation in the involved gland. It is possible to have multiple styes in the same eyelid at the same time. The inflammation produces swelling and pressure in the eyelid, and as anyone who has had an inflamed gallbladder or appendix will tell you, a pressurized and inflamed organ can be painful. Healthy areas around the inflamed gland can also become swollen, even to the point of causing the lid to obstruct vision. In rare cases, the inflammation can turn into a bacterial infection with progression to infection of the surrounding skin.

A stye is formed when a gland becomes obstructed. Stock photo

It is quite common for the inflamed stye to slowly resolve in terms of pain and swelling, but leave behind a painless lump called a “chalazion.”

When the inflammation is just a stye, it usually resolves on its own. This process can be aided by warming the involved lid with a very warm, moist washcloth for several minutes, several times a day. It is believed that this helps by encouraging additional circulation to the area, and causing the oil in the gland to become more fluid, i.e. less viscous, and easier for the obstruction to relieve itself. Surgery to drain a stye is seldom recommended due to the likelihood that it will resolve on its own, and it may stir up worse inflammation than the stye itself.

There is no evidence that antibiotic drops or ointments, or even oral antibiotics, are effective in this condition, probably because most of the inflammation is not due to bacterial infection, but rather an inflammatory response to an obstructed gland.

If a painless lump develops, the chalazion, this also may resolve on its own with warm compresses over weeks, sometimes months, normally much slower than a stye does.

If the chalazion fails to improve, or the pace at which it improves is very slow, it can be incised and drained by an ophthalmologist in an office procedure under local anesthesia. This surgery itself will produce considerable temporary bruising and swelling, so it’s best to give your own body a chance for a couple months to resolve this by itself. A chalazion may sometimes be so diffuse that it’s unlikely to find a specific spot to drain, so steroid injections in the lid can also be very effective, but also has some risk.

Be reassured that styes, while uncomfortable, are not a serious condition unless it appears it’s turning into the rare, serious, true infection of the lid, and normally resolve on their own.

Find Out More:

Dr. Mitchell Gossman is a comprehensive ophthalmologist at Eye Associates of Central Minnesota. The office is located at 628 Roosevelt Road, Suite 101, in St. Cloud. To make an appointment or to learn more, call 320-774-3789 or email

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