Hot tea

Drink your tea, treat your stye. Some people use teabags to treat their styes, but any warm, moist cloth will do.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

This is the second post in a three-part series on how to treat common eye problems.

Stye, sty, eye stye, (the medical term is a hordeolum)—whatever you call it, however you spell it, whether it’s external or internal (on the inner eyelid), a—let’s stick with stye—is a pimple. It’s a clogged-up, infected oil gland just like you get on the rest of the body. The problem is, this pimple is right smack-dab against one of the most precious and sensitive parts of your body: your eye. Because of that, you have to treat it with care.

The stye treatment with the best track record—the thing you always need to do first—the thing that will usually cure a stye—is also the simplest:

Apply heat. Moist heat is better. Apply it over and over again. Maybe ten minutes every two hours? Longer and more often if you have the time. Some people apply warm, moist teabags to the stye area. I guess they hold the warmth well, but any warm, wet cloth will do. Even if the whole eyelid is swollen and red, the stye should shrink down to smaller than a pea within a day or two. From there, it may drain out a little pus, or just go away.

To tell the truth, many styes will go away on their own. But they can ache and throb and impair vision, so the quicker they’re gone, the better. Besides, if you have my kind o’ luck, you’ll have the one where the infection gets worse and causes your eye to swell shut or, even worse, where the infection spreads onto your face.

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Two big don’ts when treating a stye:

  1. Never squeeze a stye. Most of the time you’re just spreading the infection. Since eyelid tissue is so loose, that’s awfully easy to do, and you’ll have a much bigger mess on your hands.
  2. Never poke a stye with a needle. Some patients I see just can’t seem to help themselves. For every bump or swollen spot, they just have to poke it with a needle. And when that makes the area about ten times worse, they come to see me.

See a doctor if:

  • The heat hasn’t helped within a day, OR
  • The soreness hasn’t gone away within two days, OR
  • The eyelid is looking worse. That’s rare. Even more rare is if the redness and swelling extend into the face. If that happens, get to a doctor pronto. If it surrounds the eye, you’re getting periorbital cellulitis. If that infection ever gets into the sinuses underneath, you’re in for big trouble.

If getting to a doctor is impossible and the heat is not working after a day:

  • You can try some antibiotic eye ointment if you have it.
  • If it’s getting worse, take oral antibiotics and try extra hard to get to that doctor.

If a lump lingers:

If the pain and redness go away but a lump remains, no, don’t get out that needle. The stye has become a chalazion. That’s just a big name for a little cyst, or sometimes scar tissue. Leave it alone until you can get to an eye doctor, who can remove it.

The good new is it’s rare that a stye becomes serious. The heat usually does the trick. Does anyone have home remedies for how to treat a stye that they’d like to add? I’d love to know them.

Read part one of the eye-problems series here: “Pinkeye, the Original Pink Slime … and the Impostors.”

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Stye photo courtesy of teresatrimm on Flickr. Teabag photo by Gary Otte; all rights reserved.