What is a Pterygium?
A pterygium (tur-RIJ-ee-uhm) or ‘surfer’s eye’, is a growth of degenerative tissue on the white of the eye (sclera), usually on the nasal side, that could extend onto the cornea.
Although it is commonly known as ‘surfer’s eye’, surfers are not the only group of people at risk of getting it. In fact, about one in every 100 Australians develops a pterygium at some time in their life.
It may look out of the ordinary, cause vision problems, cause irritation and redness, but a pterygium is benign and treatable.
Causes of pterygium
Pterygia (plural) growths are the body’s way of trying to protect the eye from intense environments, such as high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, dust, sand or windy locations.
Surfers are more at risk of pterygium as they are in the sun for long periods of time, as are other at-risk groups including farmers, welders and those who work long hours outside.
Australians who spent their early childhood in the northern parts of the country were found to have a higher risk of developing a pterygium than those who grew up further south. In addition, people who live in rural environments are approximately five times more likely to develop pterygium than those who live in urban areas.
Gender and age
A pterygium is twice as likely to occur in men than in women. The risk also increases with age. Approximately 12% of men over 60 in Australia have a pterygium.
What to expect at the optometrist
Diagnosis of a pterygium is usually straightforward. Your eye doctor (optometrist) will provide you with a complete eye exam to ensure the diagnosis is thorough and to eliminate the possibility that it might be anything else.
Using a device called a slit lamp, your optometrist will magnify and light your eye to examine the pterygium in much closer detail. Other tests include a visual acuity test (with an eye chart), corneal imaging (using a corneal topographer to see the curvature of your cornea) and photo documentation. All tests are painless and non invasive.
Treatment of a pterygium often involves the use of eye drops to manage symptoms, such as inflammation, mild pain, itching or a feeling of having grit in the eye. For minor irritation, lubricated eye drops or ointments will be prescribed to soothe the cornea. These medications only ease the symptoms and are not a cure.
If the growth is significant and continues to spread across the cornea or threatens to affect vision, surgical removal of the pterygium is usually recommended.
In the case of pterygium surgery when a pterygium has to be surgically removed, the patient will be referred to a pterygium specialist or an ophthalmologist. Pterygium removal surgery is minimally-invasive and usually takes no more than 30 minutes.
The best way to reduce your risk of developing a pterygium, to slow the progression of an existing pterygium, or to stop a pterygium recurrence, is to protect your eyes from UV light.
When you spend time outdoors, to protect your eyes from the damaging effects of UV rays, wear sunglasses that block 90 to 100% of ultraviolet light even on cloudy, on overcast days and when you are in the car for greater eye protection.
Sunglasses, including wraparound sunglasses, can protect you from bright sunlight and also protection from irritants, like sand, dust, or wind.
Wear a hat
A sun hat or wide brimmed hat will not only protect your head from sunburn but they can reduce the amount of UV radiation reaching your eyes by 50%.
When you are in very dry, windy, or dusty areas, use over-the-counter eye drops to keep your eyes properly lubricated.
Parents should ensure that their children are wearing hats and sunglasses as well. These measures should be a part of every outing to the park or beach.
What Pterygium is not
It is important to understand that pterygium is non cancerous; it is a localised disturbance on the surface of the eye. Although benign, pterygium should always be checked by your local optometrist.
Pterygium is not a cataract. They are completely different conditions. A pterygium grows on the surface of the eye. A cataract is a clouding of the lens inside the eye.
If you have any area of tissue on or around the eyes that changes rapidly or that you have not had checked previously you should make an appointment with your local optometrist.