A pterygium – pronounced as ter-ig-e-um – is a fleshy triangular growth that develops when an eye is regularly exposed to bright sunlight and wind. It’s common in people who spend a lot of time outdoors in sunny and windy conditions, especially surfers. Hence the condition’s other name – Surfer’s Eye.
Pterygium is a usually harmless condition affecting the ‘skin’ of the eye (the conjunctiva), typically on the side closest to the nose. If it grows across the cornea, it can cause scarring and sometimes loss of vision. The growth may also distort the shape of the cornea, causing vision problems (e.g. astigmatism).
One or both eyes can be affected and it’s more common in people between 20 and 40 years. Men are usually more likely to develop a pterygium than women.
Diagnosing a pterygium is usually straightforward using a slit lamp.
A pterygium can go unnoticed for many years, or it may be dismissed as a general irritation of the eye. As it progresses, it can start to spread across the cornea. Common symptoms include:
Some people with a pterygium may find it difficult to wear contact lenses, while others dislike the look of the growth on their eye and may seek surgical treatment to have it removed.
In many cases, simple eye drops can be used to treat symptoms, such as inflammation, mild pain, itching or a feeling of having grit in the eye. Treatment for a minor irritation includes eye drops or ointments that help to lubricate and soothe the cornea. For severe inflammation, you may be prescribed a short course of steroid eye drops. These medications only ease the symptoms and are not a cure.
If the growth spreads across the cornea or causes other problems, surgery is usually recommended to avoid complications and loss of vision. Some people choose to have surgery for cosmetic reasons. Using modern micro-surgical techniques, the surgeon will carefully remove the pterygium and replace it with a graft of healthy tissue, which is fixed into place. There is a chance that the condition may recur following surgery, but the process of grafting helps to prevent this.