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Is a Stye Contagious? The Truth Behind Eye Infections

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If you have ever noticed a small red bump on your eyelid, almost like a pimple, you likely had a stye.  An extremely common eye condition, styes can cause further eye infections if they are not addressed.  Fortunately, your optometrist can help, but in the meantime, you may wonder if a stye is contagious.

While they can have several causes, styes are rarely contagious.  You can only give someone else a stye if you transmit a certain bacteria.  However, this situation is unlikely and easily preventable.

What Is a Stye, Anyway?

Your eyes are a remarkably sensitive part of the body.  They are easily susceptible to all kinds of problems, such as vision issues, scratches, infections, and more.

Inside and along the outer edge of the eyelids, you have tiny oil-producing glands and hair follicles.  These can easily become plugged or blocked, causing minor irritation and swelling.  Bacteria can spread easily from your hands or face to your eye, causing infection and inflammation.  When this happens, you will notice a small red bump that looks similar to a pimple.

This is a stye.  Clinically called a “hordeolum,” a stye is a minor infection, and often goes away within a week or two.  There are two types of styes:

  • Internal styes develop on the inside edge of the eyelid, facing the eye.  These are caused by an infection less frequently  in the Meibomian (oil) glands located within the eyelid.
  • External styes develop on the outer edge of the eyelid, facing away from the eye, near the eyelash bases.  These are more common and caused by an infection of the ciliary glands of Zeis and Moll.

You can have a stye on one eyelid or both simultaneously, although the latter is more rare.

How to Tell If You Have a Stye?

If you are unsure you have a stye, it helps to know what to look for.  The most obvious symptom is often visible redness—usually in the form of a bump—on or around the eyelids.  If this area is uncomfortable or easily irritated, especially when touched, you likely have a stye.

Styes can also cause:

  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Tenderness in the affected area
  • A gritty sensation in the eye
  • Increased tear production
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Crustiness around the eyelids

It is essential to remember that, despite how it appears, a stye is not a pimple.  While your first impulse may be to try to pop it, try to avoid this at all costs.  Popping a stye can spread bacteria around the infection site, which can lead to further problems in the eye.

How Do Styes Spread?

There is good news here.  While many infections are easy to transmit, a stye is not one of them.  Though it is technically possible to give somebody else a stye, it is extremely rare.

Usually, a stye is caused by staphylococcus bacteria.  This is found in several parts of the human body and is relatively harmless.  However, like most bacteria, it can occasionally spread.  When it reaches the sensitive areas around the eye, it can lead to an infection that causes a stye.

However, this type of bacteria is not easy to transmit.  A person would need to come into direct contact with the inflamed area—your eyelid, and the bacteria would need to spread to them.  This is an unlikely situation, and you can take some small steps to lower the transmission risk even further.

What to Do If You Have a Stye?

A close-up of a person washing their hands at a kitchen sink with soap and water.

While a stye can be uncomfortable, it does not have to be a long-term problem.  Whether you are looking to lower the risk of transmission, bring yourself relief from the symptoms, or both, it helps to:

  • Wash your hands before and after touching your eyes.
  • Use hot compresses for around 15 minutes or so a few times a day.  This stimulates the area, loosens the blocked glands, and helps you find relief from any discomfort.
  • Gently clean the affected area with an eyelid scrub, or even just warm water with tear-free shampoo.
  • Massage the affected area, once clean, to improve circulation and expression of the glands.
  • Wash any shared towels, bedsheets, or pillowcases that you touch in your home to prevent the risk of bacterial transmission.
  • Avoid popping styes.  This can lead to a significantly higher risk of further infections and an increased likelihood of transmission.

If after a week your stye remains or worsens, it is time to visit your optometrist for more professional care.  Your optometrist may prescribe an oral antibiotic medication or antibacterial ointment to handle the bacteria causing the infection.  If your stye is severe, they may recommend further treatment, like steroids, or even draining the affected area.

When to See Your Optometrist

If you are dealing with the discomfort of a stye, or are experiencing any other problem with your eyes or vision, come see our team at Eye Love Optometry.  We are here to help you find relief from your symptoms.  Schedule an appointment with our team, and let us help!


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  • Written by Park L. Hsieh, O.D.

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