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Stye or chalazion: which one is it?

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I think he’s got a stye” is a common presenting complaint to primary care, urgent care or even ED.  It seems surprising how many clinicians get muddled between styes and chalazions and even more how we aren’t always sure how to treat them (hint often they don’t need treating, just simple reassurance).

Both styes and chalazions will present with a lump in the eyelid. 

Chalazions/Meibomian Cysts

The eyelid contains numerous small glands called Meibomian glands which produce the oily tear film which keeps eyes well lubricated. One of these glands can get blocked by the oily fluid solidifying. This results in a lump inside the lid called a chalazion. These can affect upper or lower lids, though more commonly the upper.

Stye/Hordeolum
Chalazion/Meibomian cyst

Stye/external hordeoleum

A stye is a blocked gland on the edge of the eyelid that presents as a small boil or abscess. The term is also used for a boil/abscess arising from an eyelash follicle. Styes are more common in people who have rosacea or blepharitis.

Treatment

The treatment for chalazions and styes is largely self-care and non invasive. The NHS website advises

  1. Soak a clean flannel in warm water.
  2. Hold it against your eye for 5 to 10 minutes.
  3. Repeat this 3 or 4 times a day.

Moorfields Eye hospital has a really good leaflet for parents and carers of children with chalazions.

Occasionally chalazions (and less often styes) can become infected with spreading cellulitis around the area which will need treatment with antibiotics.

Surgery is very rarely indicated and has been designated a Procedure of Limited Clinical Value (PLCV) in the majority of areas of the UK. This means special dispensation is required to operate and this will usually be if the chalazion is so large that it is interfering with vision. Incision and drainage is unusual though may be considered with a large tense/pointing abscess. Some doctors will consider removal of an adjacent eyelash if it seems likely to drain a stye though this is often not going to be possible in a young and wriggly child. Lid hygiene is recommended if children get recurrent styes or chalazions as a result of blepharitis, there’s a good step by step video below.

About the authors

  • Dr Tara George. MBChB (Hons) Sheffield 2002, FRCGP, DCH, DRCOG, DFSRH, PGCertMedEd Salaried GP and GP Trainer, Wingerworth Surgery, Wingerworth, Derbyshire. GP Training Programme Director, Chesterfield and the Derbyshire Dales GP Speciality Training Programme. Out of Hours GP and supervisor, Derbyshire Health United. Early Years Tutor, Phase 1, Sheffield University Medical School. Mentor, GP-s peer mentoring service and Derbyshire GPTF new to practice scheme. External Advisor RCGP Pronouns: she/her When she's not doing doctory things Tara loves to bake, to read novels, run and take out some of that pent up angst in Rockbox classes

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