A pterygium is an eye condition that is also known as 'surfer's eye'. It's a growth on the white part of your eye, usually in the inner corner nearest your nose.
Key points about pterygium
- Pterygium is a very common condition in Aotearoa New Zealand. You can get it in one or both eyes.
- People who work outdoors or spend a lot of time in the sun and wind are most likely to get it.
- The growth is not cancerous and doesn't usually require treatment unless it's blocking your vision or causing severe discomfort.
- Treatment includes medicine or surgery, depending how severe it is.
- You can reduce your chances of getting a pterygium by wearing sunglasses and a hat when you're out in the sun.
What are the symptoms of a pterygium?
The main sign of a pterygium is a raised wedge-shaped bump on the surface of your eye.
You may also experience:
- eye redness
- a burning feeling in your eye
- a gritty feeling, as though there is something in your eye
- dryness in your eye
- a change in the power of your glasses.
Who is at risk of getting a pterygium?
The biggest risk is to people whose eyes are exposed to a lot of ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, such as surfers.
People whose eyes are exposed to pollen, sand, smoke, chemicals and wind on a regular basis also have a higher risk of developing this condition. This includes farmers, fishers and welders.
You are more likely to get this condition:
- if you live in a sunnier climate
- are aged 40 years or older
- are male.
How is a pterygium diagnosed?
Usually, a pterygium can be diagnosed by your family doctor or optometrist by examining your eye and eyelids.
How is a pterygium treated?
Most pterygium cause no problems and don't need treatment. However, it is important to have this monitored. If the growth continues and begins to affect your vision or cause ongoing eye discomfort, you may need treatment.
Your eye care provider may recommend artificial tears or eye drops to reduce your discomfort. If the pterygium is inflamed, They may also prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drops (eg, Acular, Voltaren Optha).
Your eye care provider may recommend surgery if your vision is affected or if medicines have not given you enough relief.
The surgery involves removing the pterygium from the sclera (white) and cornea (outer lens) of your eye. The area is then covered with a small graft of your own healthy conjunctiva (surface tissue).
This is usually performed under local anaesthetic, and takes half an hour. A pad is placed over the eye and you will need transport home.
You shouldn't feel any pain during the procedure, but it's normal for your eyes to feel scratchy for a few days afterwards, and you will need a day or two off work.
You will need to use eye drops for about a month after the surgery to help your eye heal. After surgery, take extra care with wearing protective glasses and a hat with a brim to prevent it returning. The recurrence rate for this procedure is 5%.
Your glasses will need to be upgraded following surgery.
How can I prevent pterygium?
To reduce your chance of getting a pterygium:
- wear UV protective sunglasses when outside
- wear a wide brim hat when outside
- avoid dust and chemical pollutants, and if you can't due to your work, wear the protective eyewear
- take extra care to protect your eyes if you spend a lot of time on the water or snow.
- Pterygium – what is surfer's eye? Auckland Eye, NZ, 2019
- Pterygium and pinguecula Eye Institute, NZ, 2020
Dr Divya Perumal works at the Eye Institute and Auckland Public Hospital. She has expertise in performing eye surgery, including advanced glaucoma surgery and cataract surgery. She is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland and is actively involved in teaching junior doctors and research, as well as conducting public lectures.