A pterygia is a growth on the eye caused by excessive exposure to UV light – which is why it is often known as ‘surfer’s eye’. However it is not only surfers who can develop a pterygium – it can also happen when there is excessive exposure to environmental elements such as irritants, wind and dust.
Thanks to a depleted ozone layer and our harsh sunlight, pterygium is a common eye condition in New Zealand. It is known to affect surfers because they experience prolonged amounts of time exposed to strong UV reflection coming off the water. Pterygium appear as a growth of tissue on the cornea (the clear front window of the eye) and the conjunctiva (the thin, filmy membrane that covers the white part of the eye).
When the eye tissue is damaged or irritated, the body goes into its natural healing response and creates scar tissue to repair the damage, forming the pterygium. It is easy to see a pterygium; it appears as a red and often raised growth on the inside corner of the eye. A pterygium may continue to grow, becoming more obvious, irritating, or reducing vision.
To reduce the risk of developing a pterygium you should remember to protect your eyes from excessive sunshine and UV light by wearing good quality sunglasses. Remember to take precautions during the sunny summer months, and when around snow where UV light exposure is particularly high.
Pterygium are most commonly caused by exposure to UV light (sunlight) but can also appear as a result of dry eye and environmental elements such as wind, dust and irritants.
Often pterygium doesn’t require treatment. Ointment or eye drops can be used to reduce pain and inflammation. Surgery to remove a pterygium may be recommended if simple treatments are not effective, to improve the eye’s appearance, or if vision is affected.
Commonly known as ‘surfer’s eye’, pterygium can also affect farmers, fishermen and arc welders as they spend a lot of time outdoors or are exposed to UV light or irritants.
How do I know if I have a pterygium?
A pterygium is clearly visible as a raised, red growth in the inside corner of the eye. It may continue to grow over the cornea (clear front window of the eye) and across the pupil. A pterygium may also cause:
- Redness and inflammation
- Blurred vision if the pterygium distorts the shape of the cornea or encroaches over the pupil
- Dryness, itching or a burning sensation
- A feeling that there is a foreign object in the eye
Do I need treatment for a pterygium?
In many cases no treatment is needed. Eye drops or ointments can be used to reduce the inflammation if the pterygium causes redness and irritation. Surgery is only required if the ptergyium causes reduced vision or is threatening to do so, or is causing persistent discomfort. Some patients request the removal of pterygium for cosmetic reasons.
How can I prevent a pterygium?
The best way to avoid developing a pterygium is to limit your eyes’ exposure to the environmental factors that can cause the condition. This includes sunlight, wind and dust. Always wear good-quality sunglasses and a hat when outdoors, wear eye protection in dusty conditions, apply artificial tears when in dry conditions and avoid exposure to toxic chemicals.
What happens if I need surgery for my pterygium?
Occasionally, surgery is required to remove the growth. This is performed as day surgery and should only take around 30 minutes. The procedure is performed under local anaesthetic to paralyse and numb the eye and the area around it. The growth is removed and a small piece of tissue from underneath the eyelid is grafted into the space left by the removed growth. Read more about surgery for pterygium here.