Summer starts early here in central Texas and the hot sun serves as a reminder that we need to protect our eyes from chronic ultraviolet light exposure. The human body has a remarkable ability to protect itself from the environment. When it comes to sunlight, the surface layer of the eye (called the cornea) does a very good job at preventing high energy UV rays from reaching the interior structures of the eye. In doing so, it prevents damage to the delicate structures that form the visual system. These include the lens, the retina, and the optic nerve. The cornea is very efficient at preventing these rays from entering the eye, but what about the surface structures? Chronic UV exposure can lead to two common eye conditions that occur adjacent to or on top of the cornea.
The first is known as a pinguecula (pronounced PING-gweck-u-la). In this condition a raised mass of tissue can be seen as a white or yellow bump, usually at the 3 and 9 oclock positions of the conjunctiva, the thin film of tissue that covers the white part of the eye. This tissue is your body's response to chronic irritation from sun exposure. Sometimes a pinguecula can become inflamed, causing redness, tearing, pain, or difficulty wearing your contact lenses.
The second condition, called pterygium (TUR-edg-e-um), is closely related to pinguecula. In pterygium, the pinguecula has progressed in such a way that it has grown onto the surface of the cornea. This can result in astigmatism. In some cases, the pterygium can grow large enough to prevent light from being able to normally enter the pupil and severely affect the vision. Most of the time these conditions can be managed conservatively using anti-inflammatory drops and artificial tears. In refractory or progressive cases, the pinguecula or pterygium can be surgically removed in the operating room in about 15 minutes.
The best way to treat pterygium and pinguecula is by prevention. This means covering up your eyes during those sunny Texas days. A simple hat and sunglasses used on a regular basis can prevent chronic irritation of your cornea and conjunctiva. Are you concerned that pterygium or pinguecula may be causing you symptoms? Contact our office to find out more.