What Causes Swollen Eyelids?

24 September 2019

Author: Jacci

What Causes Swollen Eyelids?

Swollen or ‘puffy’ eyelids are very common and can occur for a number of reasons. They often crop up due to blocked oil glands in and around the eyelid- at times indicating an infection. 


Most of the time these lumps and bumps are harmless; it’s rare that they will interfere with sight. For the most part, they are simply unattractive and unpleasant. Fortunately, treatment is generally straight forward, dependent on the cause. 

In this article we explore the five most common causes of swollen eyelids, the treatments and the home remedies that can be used to relieve the symptoms.     

What are the symptoms of swollen eyelids?

Apart from the obvious, symptoms vary from person to person. Depending on the cause, symptoms that often go along with swollen eyelids include:

  • Eye irritation (itchy or scratchy sensation)
  • Sensitivity to light 
  • Watery eyes
  • Obstructed vision 
  • Redness 
  • Eyelid dryness or flaking
  • Tenderness 


Most of these symptoms can be treated at home; however you should seek medical advice immediately if your swollen eyelids are accompanied by:

  • Pain in the eye
  • Blurry or distorted vision
  • Eye floaters in line of vision
  • Inability to move your eye muscles


Although rare, cancers of the eye can cause the eye to protrude; making it appear like the eyelid is swollen, when it is in fact pressure from the cancer. It goes without saying, if you are concerned about your eye health; contact your doctor without delay.  

Causes and treatments for swollen eyelids

There are several possible reasons for your swollen eyelid. It can be hard to determine the exact cause, but we hope that the below will shed some light.


An allergic reaction happens when the immune system negatively responds to an otherwise harmless substance, known as an allergen. These reactions vary from person to person.

Pollen, dust and chemicals in certain eye drops or contact lens solutions are the most common eye allergens. If you are susceptible to eye allergies, we feel your pain. They may be harmless, but they are extremely irritating. 

Reactions to allergens develop when the cells in the eye release histamine that cause tiny blood vessels to leak and swell, causing the eyes to become itchy, red and watery. 

Eye allergies can be treated pretty easily with over-the-counter eye drops or antihistamines. If symptoms are not controlled by these however, immunotherapy (allergy shots) is a great option. 

Immunotherapy involves eye shots containing tiny amounts of the allergen. The dose gradually increases over time to help the body become immune to the allergen. Consult your opticians if you want to go down this route.  


A stye is an inflammation caused by an infected gland in the eyelid; usually along the eyelash line. They are very common and most people will get at least one occurrence in their lifetime. 

Although uncomfortable and not pretty to look at, styes are not generally a cause for concern. In almost all cases, the infection only affects a single gland and requires no major treatment. Some people apply a warm compress to the eyelid to relieve symptoms.  

Contrary to popular belief, styes are in fact highly contagious. It’s never recommended to share products that come into contact with the eye; so extra care is needed to eliminate cross contamination, when dealing with a stye.     

Chalazions (cyst)

A chalazion is the medical term for a lump or cyst on or under the eyelid. They are extremely common and occur when an oil gland becomes blocked and inflamed. Although a chalazion looks like a stye, they are not the same. 

The key difference between a stye and a chalazion lies in the cause. Styes are generally caused by an infected eyelash root and appear on the very edge of the eye lid. A chalazion on the other hand is not infectious and will appear further back on the eyelid.

Another major difference is that styes can be painful, while chalazions tend to be larger in size but pain free. Most outbreaks will heal without the need for attention. A warm compress will usually do the trick!


Conjunctivitis, most commonly known as pink eye, refers to inflammation of the eye's conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the clear, thin tissue that lines the eyelid. People with pink eye will have very red or pink eyeballs, hence the name, which often follows with discomfort, itching, and swollen eyelids.

There are three types of conjunctivitis; infectious, allergic and chemical. Treatment therefore depends on the type of inflammation that is active. In some cases antibiotic eye drops will be prescribed by a doctor, but as with most cases of conjunctivitis, it is left to clear up on its own- which generally takes around 2 weeks.

As with many eye related complaints, we recommend holding a warm compress against the infected eyelid to relieve any discomfort and to reduce swelling. 

Basic hygiene is enough avoid spreading the infection to other people or to the other eye. Remember to:

  • Change your pillowcases and sheets every day
  • Use a fresh towel every day
  • Wash your hands often, especially after you touch your eyes
  • Don't wear your contact lenses until conjunctivitis has cleared
  • Don't share anything that touches your eye


Periorbital cellulitis (infection)

Periorbital cellulitis is the medical term for an infection of the eyelid, most common in children under two years of age.

It occurs when bacteria enters and attacks soft tissue around the eye. It’s rare for the infection to spread to the actual eyeball; which is known as orbital cellulitis. Orbital cellulitis is much more serious and can lead to complete loss of sight if left untreated.

Luckily periorbital cellulitis is more common than orbital cellulitis. Periorbital cellulitis will cause the eyelid and skin around the eyes to become tender, swollen and red. If a fever or limited eye movement accompany this, medical assistance is required.

In both cases antibiotics will be prescribed; which usually start to take affect after 24 hours. These should be taken as directed by the doctor.  


Symptoms that indicate the need for emergency attention include:


  • Sudden vision loss or changes
  • Pain in the eye
  • Inability to move or open the eye
  • Confusion or dizziness
  • High temperature


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