Styes are bacterial infections that affect the small glands at or near the base of the eyelashes. These pus-filled, tender red bumps resemble boils or pimples and often cause pain around the edge of the eye. Despite being painful and unsightly, though, styes are not contagious like some other eye problems that share many of their symptoms.
Styes occur when oil glands in the eyelid become infected, namely with a type of bacteria called staphylococcus. Bacterium staphylococcus is a common skin bacteria, and it is pretty innocuous as long as it remains confined to the skin.
When Bacterium staphylococcus gets into the eyes and surrounding tissue, it can cause a bacterial eye infection—a stye.
Crusty eyes are a common symptom of a stye. Such crusting occurs when the infection produces a discharge that wets the eyelids, eyelashes, and corners of the eyes and then dries, a wet-dry cycle that typically starts at night during sleep. When the person awakes in the morning, their eye may feel scratchy or like it's been glued closed.
Eye infections brought on by bacteria exposure can cause internal or external styes. External ones occur when the infection is in the meibomian gland close to the center of the eyelid. The infection forms on the inner surface of the eyelid and can trigger enough inflammation to push the eyeball forward, pressing it against the eyelid.
When this happens, the outer eyelid becomes visibly swollen. Most people who develop this symptom describe the swelling as a hard lump.
In addition to swelling, an eye infection can also turn the eyelid red. Rubbing your eyes with dirty hands, using expired or otherwise contaminated eye makeup, and other poor hygiene habits can lead to or worsen this symptom of a stye.
People who have a stye or are beginning to develop one generally experience mild to moderate pain. This is because of inflammation, which is a natural reaction that lets the body begin fighting the irritant or bacteria. When the body tries to rid itself of oil, bacteria, and infection that interfere with oil glands in the eyelid, the eye becomes inflamed and painful.
Rubbing the eye will usually make the pain worse, not better, and can scratch the eye or spread the infection.
Another of the many signs and symptoms of a stye is the feeling of something in the eye. Inflammation and swelling resulting from the eye condition can cause mechanical friction, a phenomenon typically associated with wearing contact lenses. Some people experience this sensation before a stye takes form, while others will feel it after a few days.
This symptom makes it very difficult not to rub or poke at the eye, but it's always best to keep your hands away from an infected eye.
Because it can trigger many of the same symptoms, a chalazion is commonly confused with a stye. The main difference between the two is pain. Unlike styes, a chalazion is not painful, though it generally lasts much longer than a stye—anywhere from 10 days to several months.
A chalazion is a relatively small, noninfectious bump in the eyelid caused by a blocked oil gland.
Blepharitis, a condition characterized by inflammation of the eyelids, is also commonly confused with styes. This eye problem is common among people over 50 and usually affects both eyelids simultaneously. Blepharitis occurs when oil glands around the base of the eyelashes become clogged.
Symptoms of blepharitis include inflammation and itchy, burning, and dry eyes. Although poor hygiene is responsible for most cases of blepharitis, it can also stem from allergies, trauma, infections, infestations, and makeup overuse.
Also known as pink eye, conjunctivitis is an eye condition triggered by infection or allergies. It usually goes away within a couple of weeks without treatment and without causing vision problems.
Because of its impact on the eye and surrounding tissue, conjunctivitis is often confused with a stye. However, this infection affects the conjunctiva, the transparent membrane lining the eyelid, and the sclera, the white portion of the eyeball. It makes the eyes appear reddish or pink and can, like a stye, cause itching, swelling, and the feeling that something is stuck in the eye.
More common among children than adults, orbital cellulitis is another eye condition that often gets confused with a stye. It triggers many of the same symptoms, such as pain, redness, and swelling.
The cause of orbital cellulitis is very different, though. Typically, it occurs when a sinus infection spreads to tissue surrounding the eyes. Unlike a stye, orbital cellulitis seldom goes away on its own and usually needs medical treatment to prevent it from worsening and causing serious vision problems.
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