Is This Growth on My Eye a Pinguecula?
What's a Pinguecula and Why Should You Care?
As much as I hate letting people get close to my eyes, I finally made an appointment with the optometrist to address two worrisome conditions. My vision had been getting blurry, and I also had a weird growth on my eye. The growth had been there for years—and had never caused any pain—but if it could be treated simply with eyedrops, for example, I'd be all for it.
I'd tried to find information online about this blister-like growth on the white of my eye, but the only thing I found were references to herpes of the eye. That was a bit alarming, to say the least!
As expected, the optometrist informed me that I needed glasses to correct my blurry vision. When it came time to discuss the odd blistering on my eyeball, he had some good news: it wasn't herpes. Instead, it was something called a pinguecula. Although I'd never heard of this condition, I was very relieved to hear that it wasn't dangerous or life-threatening, I was saddened to learn, however, that it would make it difficult for me to wear contact lenses. In addition, I would need to buy more expensive lenses that didn't have as much flexibility of use as many brands offer.
Quel dommage! "What a shame," I thought, "that something so easily preventable had marred my once-beautiful eyes." Keep reading to learn more about these eye growths, as well as a related condition known as pterygium.
Pingueculae and Pterygium: What Are They?
Pinguecula, pronounced pin-gweh-kyoo-luh, is an uncommon word, but it denotes a condition many adults will develop during their lifetimes. If visiting an optometrist or opthamologist isn’t on your annual to-do list, you may be left in the dark about this common affliction.
Pingueculae (the plural of the word pinguecula) are blister-like, elevated areas just outside the cornea on the exposed white areas of the eye. They aren’t blisters, however. Without getting too technical, they are the result of fatty tissue breaking down and being replaced by stronger fibrous material. In some cases, these non-cancerous masses can grow into the corneal area, creating a condition called pterygium that can affect eyesight. They may appear yellowish, gray, or have no color.
How People Get a Pinguecula
If you live in a sunny climate, you’ve probably seen them. They’re most common in tropical areas where ultraviolet (UV) exposure is highest. Studies have shown approximately 70% of Australians and 50% of Spanish people have pingueculae. In the southern United States, as many as 15% of people develop the more advanced form (pterygium) during their lifetime, compared with 2% or less of people in the northernmost parts of the country.
Growths occur on the exposed whites of the eyes, particularly where sunlight may be reflected off a person’s nose. In addition to sunlight, wind and other environmental conditions may contribute to pinguecula development. Arc welders, farmers, and frequent tanning all increase one’s risk of developing the disorder. Although most commonly seen in people over 40, growths may appear as early as the mid-20s.
Symptoms caused by a pinguecula are often mild, but can cause patients significant emotional distress because it permanently changes their appearance and may make them look tired or ill if blood vessels become more noticeable due to the growth. Patients may also notice dryness and itching. Hyper-pigmentation (permanent darkening) of skin and/or hair often occurs in the same patients as well, though the two conditions aren’t directly related to each other.
While optometrists and opthalmologists are more likely to discuss the condition with their patients, many general practitioners won’t even mention a pinguecula to their patients because the symptoms tend to be mild, the mass is expected to grow slowly over a period of years, and there are few treatment options.
Preventing and Treating Pingueculae & Pterygium
Sunlight reflections off water, metal, or snow, black lights, and tanning beds all direct ultraviolet (UV) light at your eyes. To protect yourself against developing an unattractive pinguecula or pterygium, doctors advise wearing sunglasses with good UV protection, hats that shade the eyes, and limiting exposure to sources of UV light.
Parents should ensure that their children have adequate protection, too. Pingueculae growth is too small to be seen in early stages. They become noticeable only after many exposures to sun reflections over a period of years. By developing sun safety practices early in a child's life, they're more likely to avoid pingueculae as well as other sun-related conditions that can damage their skin.
Good sun protection can help you and your family look younger and healthier. If you're not already using good UV protection, consider adding products like these to your outdoor regimen.
Once you have a pinguecula, doctors will generally advise leaving it alone because they're slow-growing, non-cancerous, and usually do not interfere with vision.
Artificial tears can help with itchy, dry eyes. Anti-cancer ointments like mitomycin-C can slow growth. If it has progressed to a pterygium that blocks some vision, or if it causes sufficient emotional distress, doctors can perform surgery to remove it. Surgery can remove a mass, but is costly (up to a few thousand dollars per eye) and growths can recur. Up to 40% of people who have a pterygium removed develop another, although recent developments like the one shown in the video above, claim to have dropped the rate of regrowth to about 1%. Surgery can also create or worsen astigmatism (where the eyeball's shape changes, which can affect vision.)
As you might imagine, when it comes to growths in the eye like pingueculae and pterygium, prevention really is the very best approach.