What are pingueculae and pterygia, and how can you treat them?

27 April 2021

Author: Kate Green

Pinguecula

What is a pinguecula?

 

A pinguecula is a non-cancerous lump on the sclera, the white part of your eye. It is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, so with sunny days approaching and summer just around the corner, when better to discuss the impacts of the sun on your eyes?

 

A pinguecula (plural: pingueculae) is usually yellow in colour and typically grows on the side of your eyeball closest to your nose. It is made up of protein, calcium and fats and can be round or triangular in shape. A pinguecula does not grow on your cornea (the transparent layer at the front of your eye), but rather affects the conjunctiva, which is the mucous membrane which covers the inside of your eyelids and the front of your eyes.

 

Although a pinguecula can be irritating – both in terms of discomfort and its physical appearance – it usually doesn’t affect your vision. In fact, pingueculae are just a normal part of the ageing process. Most people will have one by the age of 70, but they can also occur in your middle age.

 

What is the difference between pingueculae and pterygia?

 

A pinguecula is not to be confused with a pterygium (plural: pterygia). Pterygia can occur when a pinguecula grows and turns into a pterygium, a benign fibrous growth. The latter is more likely to disrupt your vision as they are usually larger than the former. A pterygium also has its own blood vessels, causing it to appear red or pink in colour, therefore being more noticeable than a pinguecula. The shape can also be different to that of a pinguecula, typically appearing round or oval in shape, while a pinguecula is often triangular.

 

A key difference between pingueculae and pterygia is that a pterygium can grow over your cornea after developing on your conjunctiva. For this reason, they are likely to cause more discomfort as they further disrupt the distribution of tears across the surface of your eye, creating a feeling of dryness. This also causes a pterygium to affect your vision more than a pinguecula would.

 

What are the symptoms of a pinguecula?

 

Aside from noticing a visual change on the surface of your actual eye, symptoms of a pinguecula might also be:

  • Itching
  • Dry eyes
  • Redness
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Burning sensation
  • Foreign body sensation
  • Blurry vision
  • Discomfort when wearing contacts

 

One of the biggest impacts a pinguecula can have is bringing on astigmatism by altering the natural curve of your eyeball. Astigmatism is when your eyeball is more rugby ball-shaped than basketball-shaped, affecting the way your eyes refract light and therefore causing astigmatism. This can cause blurry vision but it is correctable with specialised contact lenses or laser eye surgery.

 

Pingueculae usually affect people in their middle age and older so, if you fall into this age bracket and you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, along with a visible growth on the surface of your eye, it is very likely it could be a pinguecula.

 

What causes pingueculae and pterygia?

 

The primary cause of a pinguecula is overexposure to the sun. The UV rays can damage your eyes and cause these fibrous growths to occur on your eyes’ surface. This means that the instances of people with pingueculae and pterygia are much higher in people who live in hot countries, or in countries near the equator.

 

Aside from sun exposure, pingueculae can also occur as a result of regular irritation from wind, dust or other airborne particles. The consistent scratching of the surface of your eye can cause the growths to occur. This is also the case for regular contact lens wear, particularly if they are ill-fitting or if your eyes don’t react well to them.

 

How can you treat, prevent and remove a pinguecula?

 

First of all, pingueculae do not usually require treatment. In many cases, they don’t actually require removal for medical reasons as they do not always cause symptoms. While some people wish to have their pingueculae or pterygia removed surgically for cosmetic reasons, plenty of people don’t seek any treatment unless their vision becomes compromised as a result of it, or it causes severe eye irritation.

 

In the case of irritation to the eye, you might wish to take special steroid eye drops to assist with reducing the swelling. This should help relieve your symptoms and therefore slightly improve your vision if you were suffering with blurriness or watery eyes due to the disruption to the surface of your eye.

 

To prevent a pinguecula from returning following its removal, or to prevent pingueculae from occurring generally, it is recommended that you wear UV blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes. You could also invest in a wide-brimmed hat to keep the UV rays away from your face. If you spend a lot of time in dusty areas – for example working on building sites – you may want to look into protective eyewear to prevent irritants from entering your eyes.


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