While you may have never heard the word pinguecula (plural: pingueculae) before, chances are someone you know has experienced this common eye condition. Pinguecula (pronounced, ping·gweh·kyuh·luh) is simply a fancy term used to describe tiny yellow bumps that usually appear on the whites of the eyes near the corneas. While these “eye calluses” can feel annoying, they usually go away with plenty of rest and proper eye care. Pingueculae could, however, transform into a more serious condition known as pterygium (plural: pterygia) if you’re not careful.
For more information on these two conditions, please keep reading. Below, we’ll go over everything you need to know about what causes pinguecula and pterygium and how you can effectively deal with these common conditions.
What’s A Pinguecula?
Basically, pingueculae are very small bumps that appear just over the white areas of the eye (the sclera). Doctors believe these tiny bulges are the result of congestion in the eye’s clear outer layer known as conjunctiva.
These pingueculae are almost always yellow in color and appear in the sclera near the patient’s nose. There are a few cases, however, where these pingueculae could form on the opposite side of the eye. Although older people are more prone to pingueculae, these bumps could occur at any age.
Many of the symptoms related to pingueculae are similar to dry eye syndrome (i.e. itchy eyes, red eyes, and eye burning). This is because pingueculae can adversely affect the eyes’ ability to naturally re-lubricate. A few lucky patients experience no symptoms from their pingueculae, but chances are you’ll feel some disturbance to your eyes.
Pingueculae are not normally an early warning sign of anything too serious like eye cancer, and don’t require major surgical care. This doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t get your pingueculae checked out if you’re in doubt about your condition. Only a trained optometrist can determine whether you’re dealing with harmless pingueculae or a more serious eye disorder.
What’s A Pterygium?
When doctors explain pinguecula they often take a few moments to introduce another scientific-sounding eye condition: pterygium (pronounced tr·i·jee·uhm). The reason for this is that pingueculae often form into a pterygium if patients aren’t vigilant about their eye care.
So, what exactly is a pterygium? In simple terms, a pterygium is a raised layer of eye tissue that can extend from the sclera to the cornea. Usually, pterygia is a mix of red and white and can cause symptoms such as cloudy vision and eye pain.
Pterygia has many nicknames including “eye web,” “surfer’s eye,” and “farmer’s eye.” The reason pterygia is so common amongst surfers and farmers is that these people are most at risk from prolonged UV exposure. As we’ll explore below, too much sunlight is the most common cause of both pterygia and pingueculae.
Although pterygia is non-cancerous, it’s a good idea to visit an optometrist if you’re suffering from this condition. An untreated pterygium could result in damage to the cornea.
Causes And Risk Factors Of Pingueculae
Prolonged Sun Exposure
As mentioned above, too much exposure to the sun’s UV rays is one of the primary causes of pingueculae. People who spend a great deal of time outdoors without proper eye protection are at the greatest risk of developing both pingueculae and pterygia. Besides the sun, dust particles, harsh wind, and pollutants could also increase the risk of these eye conditions.
No matter how long you’re outside, it’s always a good idea to wear UV-blocking eyewear. Even if the sun isn’t out in full force, the UV rays can penetrate the eyes. This is especially the case in wintertime when sunlight bounces off of bright white snow. So, no matter where you live, there’s no excuse for not wearing UV protection when you go outdoors.
Dry Eye Syndrome
People who already have dry eye syndrome are at a greater risk for developing pingueculae. If eyes have difficulty producing protective oils and tears, it’s simply easier for pingueculae to form over time. This is especially the case when dry eyes come into contact with dust particles or wind.
Dry eyes are becoming increasingly common around the world mainly due to electronic screen exposure. Typical symptoms include eye itchiness, eye redness, and temporary blurred vision.
One of the best strategies for reducing dry eye symptoms is to limit computer time. Optometrists recommend looking 20 feet away from computer screens every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds (aka the 20-20-20 rule). Following this strategy every day can help the eyes naturally rehydrate.
People who use computers a great deal for their job might want to consider investing in a pair of blue light-blocking eyewear. Scientists are still researching the effects of electronic blue light on the human eye, but most studies suggest it has a negative impact on overall eye health. Glasses that are designed to block out blue light can help shield the eyes from these harmful effects.
Re-wetting drops are another common solution for dry eye symptoms, but they should only be used for occasional symptom relief. You could easily develop a dependence on artificial tears if you use them too frequently. For a more long-term solution, nutritionists recommend dry eye sufferers consider adding more fruits, veggies, and omega-3-rich seafood into their diet.
Pinguecula and Pterygium Treatments
Usually pinguecula and pterygium heal on their own and don’t require serious medical attention. There are steps you can take to help your eyes heal
- Avoid sunlight
- Use re-wetting drops on occasion
- Get plenty of rest
If your pinguecula or pterygium is more serious, then doctors might prescribe steroid drops to help reduce eye irritation.
Surgery is only recommended to people who have pterygium that’s seriously clouding their vision. During this procedure, an eye surgeon will remove the offending pterygium and replace it with a new film of tissue.
As with any surgery there can be a few side effects associated with pterygium surgery. For instance, some patients who get this procedure end up developing astigmatism. A recent estimate also found that 30 percent of people who have pterygium surgery end up getting pterygium again after their procedure. As with any other surgery, be sure to talk with your doctor about risk factors and long-term recovery
Pingueculae: Unsightly but not Serious
Pingueculae bumps can be quite vexing, but they usually aren’t a cause for alarm. The best things people who are prone to pingueculae could do to improve their eye health is to wear UV protection whenever they go outside and to limit electronic screen exposure. For quick symptom relief, consider using re-wetting drops or placing a slightly wet towel over your eyes for a few seconds. If your pingueculae don’t heal within about a week, then it’s suggested you visit an eye doctor for a check-up.
Author: John Dreyer Optometrist Bsc(Hons), MCOPTOM, DipCLP
Created: 18 May 2023, Last modified: 26 May 2023