Eye Cysts vs. Styes: What’s the Difference, and How Do You Get Rid of Them?

These eyelid bumps are irritating, but there are some simple fixes for both.

Young woman remove her eye makeup

Pop quiz: You notice a red, swollen bump on your eyelid. What could it be? 

If you said a stye, you might be right. But it’s also possible that the bump is a cyst. The two conditions are very common, and they’re often mistaken for each other, says Sarah Manongdo-Joya, O.D., a Chicago-based optometrist who works with National Vision and America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses. Knowing the differences can help you decide what steps to take to resolve the problem.  

Telltale Signs of a Stye 

A stye is a small, red, painful swelling that typically grows at the edge of your eyelid near your lashes. It’s usually caused by a bacterial infection. In fact, one clue that it’s a stye is that the swelling often contains pus. Another clue: “The skin feels tender, almost like a pimple on the face,” says Dr. Manongdo-Joya. 

Symptoms of a Cyst 

A cyst is a red, swollen bump that’s usually on the upper eyelid. It’s caused by a blocked oil gland, rather than a bacterial infection. Unlike a stye, an eyelid cyst, known as a chalazion, is usually painless, although if it gets large enough it could push on the eyeball and cause mild irritation and blurred vision

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Where Things Get Tricky with Styes and Cysts 

“Sometimes one can become the other,” Dr. Manongdo-Joya says. “If styes keep coming back in the same general area, the tissue may scar down and a chalazion could form.”  

Anyone can develop a stye or a cyst, but some people are especially susceptible, including those who have inflammation of the eyelids (known as blepharitis), certain skin conditions (including rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis), or diabetes.  

For all of these reasons, it’s never a good idea to self-diagnose, Dr. Manongdo-Joya says. At the first sign of trouble, call your optometrist to get checked out and receive a proper diagnosis — and faster relief.  

Home Treatments to Try for Styes and Cysts 

Good news: Styes and chalazions often go away on their own, she says. But after your optometrist has confirmed you have a stye or a cyst, you can speed up the healing process with some easy, eye doctor–recommended home treatments. 

One to try is applying a warm compress, as follows, advises Dr. Manongdo-Joya:

  • Soak a clean washcloth in hot water.
  • Wring it out.
  • Then press it gently over your closed eye for 8 to 10 minutes several times each day.  

“If the bump is a stye, the moist heat tends to make the pus more fluid,” she says. And if it’s a cyst, the warmth can help the clogged oil gland open and drain. 

Gently massaging the area with your fingertips (make sure they’re clean!) can help too. But never try to pop or drain a stye or cyst — that could make it worse or spread infection. 

When Medical Treatment Is Needed 

If these DIY fixes don’t help within two to three days, call your eye doctor. To treat a stye, the doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics and sometimes a topical antibiotic ointment to apply to the affected eyelid. 

If you have a cyst that lasts for several weeks — or impairs your vision in any way — the doctor may inject a corticosteroid to shrink it. Or they might remove it entirely: First, they’ll numb the area, then gently remove the tissue, Dr. Manongdo-Joya explains. You’ll also probably be prescribed a topical antibiotic to apply to the area to block infection. 

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Prevention Is Your Best Defense  

“The eyes are a very delicate area, so it’s important to take good care of them and practice good hygiene,” Dr. Manongdo-Joya says.  

Here’s what she recommends: 

Make your eyes a hands-free zone. If you touch or rub your eyes a lot, you could be transferring bacteria that may lead to a stye. So try to keep your hands away from your face as much as possible. (For tips to break this habit, read 7 Tricks to Stop Touching Your Eyes here.)

Wash your hands often. You’ve heard this directive countless times, and for good reason. Soap and water remove bacteria that can lead to infections. And since it’s impossible to never touch your eyes — especially if you wear contact lenses — this simple habit provides a layer of protection. 

Remove eye makeup completely at the end of the day. Since you’re not blinking while you’re sleeping, small flakes of mascara or eye shadow can creep in and irritate your eyes and eyelids.  

Clean makeup brushes weekly. This prevents bacteria from growing on them. Also, replace your mascara, eye shadows, eyeliners, and eyelash curler pads every three to six months.