Pink eye versus Stye: what you need to know

By MedDigester Doctors on July 22, 2023


Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis is an eye condition that many people may experience at some point in their lives. It is also known as “pink eye” because it can cause the white part of the eye to appear pink or red.

Conjunctivitis is a common condition and can affect people of all ages. It is caused by inflammation of the conjunctiva, which is the thin layer of tissue that covers the white part of the eye and the inside of the eyelid.

Stye

A stye is a small, painful lump that can appear on your eyelid. It’s caused by a bacterial infection, and it’s quite common, especially in adults.

The good news is that most styes will go away on their own within a week or two. However, if your stye is very large or causing a lot of pain, you should see a doctor.

Sometimes people get confused between a stye and a different eye problem called a chalazion. A chalazion also causes a lump on your eyelid, but it’s not caused by an infection, and it’s not painful. Instead, it can last longer than a stye but is not tender or painful


pink eye with red conjunctiva
pink eye, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
human eye with stye in the upper eyelid
stye, Andre Riemann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Causes

It can be caused by different factors, including viruses, bacteria, allergens, and irritants.

Viral conjunctivitis is the most common type and is usually caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold. It can be highly contagious and can spread through direct or indirect contact with an infected person’s tears or other secretions.

Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by bacteria and can also be contagious. It can result from poor hygiene, such as touching your eyes with unwashed hands or sharing makeup or towels with someone who has the infection.

Allergic conjunctivitis is caused by an allergic reaction to substances such as pollen, pet dander, or dust mites. It can cause itching, redness, and watering of the eyes.

Irritant conjunctivitis can be caused by exposure to substances such as smoke, fumes, or chemicals. It can also result from contact with a foreign body, such as a piece of dirt or a loose eyelash.

Causes  

Styes are caused by a bacterial infection that typically develops in the oil glands located in your eyelids.

The bacteria responsible for this infection are typically found on the skin around your eyes and are usually harmless. However, when they get into your oil glands, they can cause an infection that leads to a stye.

Poor hygiene can also be a contributing factor to the development of styes. Touching your eyes with dirty hands or using old or contaminated makeup can introduce harmful bacteria into your eyes and increase your risk of developing a stye.

Certain medical conditions, such as blepharitis, can also increase your risk of developing styes.

Blepharitis is a condition that causes inflammation of the eyelids, which can lead to clogged oil glands and bacterial infections.


Symptoms

It usually affects both eyes and makes them:

  • Redness in the white of the eye or inner eyelid
  • Watery or thick discharge from the eye
  • An itchy or scratchy feeling in the eye
  • Burning or feeling gritty

Symptoms

usually only affects 1 eye, but it’s possible to have more than 1 at a time.

  • A small, red lump on the inside or outside of your eyelid
  • Pain or tenderness in the affected area
  • Swelling of the eyelid
  • Discomfort when blinking or touching your eye
  • Watery or crusty discharge from your eye

It’s probably not a stye if:

  • there’s no lump – if your eye or eyelid is swollen, red, and watery it’s more likely to be conjunctivitis or blepharitis
  • the lump is hard but not very painful – it’s more likely to be a chalazion

How to treat conjunctivitis yourself

Boil water and let it cool down before you gently wipe your eyelashes to clean off crusts with a clean cotton wool pad (1 piece for each eye).

Hold a cold flannel on your eyes for a few minutes to cool them down.

Do not wear contact lenses until your eyes are better

Speak to a pharmacist about conjunctivitis. They can give you advice and suggest eyedrops or antihistamines to help with your symptoms.

If you need treatment for a child under 2, you’ll need a prescription from a GP.

You do not need to stay away from work or school unless you or your child are feeling very unwell.

Treatment from a GP

Treatment will depend on the cause of your conjunctivitis. If it’s a bacterial infection, you might be prescribed antibiotics.

But these will not work if it’s caused by a virus (viral conjunctivitis) or an allergy.

How you can treat a stye yourself

Apply a warm compress: Soak a clean washcloth in warm water and place it over your affected eye for 5-10 minutes, several times a day.

The warmth can help reduce swelling and discomfort and may help the stye to open and drain on its own.

Clean your eyelid: Gently clean your affected eyelid with mild, fragrance-free soap and water. Be careful not to rub or irritate the stye.

Avoid wearing makeup: While you have a stye, it’s best to avoid wearing eye makeup or contact lenses, as this can increase your risk of infection and may worsen your symptoms.

Don’t squeeze or pop the stye: As tempting as it may be, squeezing or popping a stye can make the infection worse and may cause it to spread. Instead, let the stye heal on its own.

Wash your hands often: To prevent the infection from spreading, be sure to wash your hands often and avoid touching your eyes.

Treatment from a GP

If you have a stye, the GP may:

  • burst the stye with a thin, sterilized needle
  • remove the eyelash closest to the stye
  • refer you to an eye specialist in the Hospital

How to prevent conjunctivitis spread

  • wash your hands regularly with warm soapy water
  • wash your pillowcases and face cloths in hot water and detergent
  • cover your mouth and nose when sneezing and put used tissues in the bin
  • do not share towels and pillows
  • do not rub your eyes

How to prevent a stey

  • Wash your hands regularly, especially before touching your eyes or applying makeup.
  • Avoid rubbing your eyes, if you have not recently washed your hands
  • Remove your makeup before going to bed and replace your eye makeup every six months.
  • Don’t share makeup or makeup applicators with others, as this can spread bacteria.
  • Clean your contact lenses as directed by your eye doctor and replace them regularly.

See a GP with your pink eye if

  • your baby has red eyes – get an urgent appointment if your baby is less than 28 days old
  • you wear contact lenses and have conjunctivitis symptoms as well as spots on your eyelids – you might be allergic to the lenses
  • you have conjunctivitis and your symptoms have not cleared up after 2 weeks

See a GP if your stye

  • is very painful or swollen
  • does not get better within a few weeks
  • affects your vision

Ask for an urgent GP appointment

  • pain in your eyes
  • sensitivity to light
  • changes in your vision, like wavy lines or flashing
  • very red eyes (1 eye or both eyes)
  • a baby less than 28 days old with red eyes These can be signs of a more serious eye problem.

Ask for an urgent GP appointment

  • pain in your eyes
  • sensitivity to light
  • changes in your vision, like wavy lines or flashing
  • very red eyes (1 eye or both eyes)
  • a baby less than 28 days old with red eyes These can be signs of a more serious eye problem.

SOURCES
MedDigester Doctors depend on high-quality medical evidence as peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We don’t use low-quality or tertiary references.

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https://www.cdc.gov/conjunctivitis/index.html

• American Academy of Ophthalmology. (2018). Conjunctivitis PPP.
https://www.aao.org/education/preferred-practice-pattern/conjunctivitis-ppp-2018

• Azari AA, et al. (2013). Conjunctivitis.
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC4049531

• Boyd,K. AAO. (2023). Conjunctivitis: What Is Pink Eye?
https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/pink-eye-conjunctivitis

• National Institute for Health and Care Excellence(NICE). (2021). Red eye.
https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/red-eye

• NHS. (2021). Conjunctivitis.
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/conjunctivitis

• NHS. (2021). Stye.
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stye

• Adam R. Sweeney, MD. (2023). Stye.
https://eyewiki.org/Stye

• C P Wilkinson MD. (2022). Is It OK to Pop a Stye?
https://www.aao.org/eye-health/ask-ophthalmologist-q/ok-to-pop-stye

• Boyd,K. AAO. (2023). What Is the Difference Between a Stye and a Chalazion?
https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-are-chalazia-styes

• Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022). Stye.
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sty/symptoms-causes/syc-20378017