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Pterygium, Surfer’s Eye

by | 6 Jan 2021 | Eye Conditions, Eye Health, News

Pterygium (pronounced “tuh – rij – ee  –uhm) is sometimes called surfer’s eye. Here are 5 key points about pterygium:

  1. Caused by excessive UV exposure
  2. If large enough, can affect vision
  3. Causes irritation to the eye
  4. Wearing good quality sunglasses when outdoors helps to prevent a pterygium forming
  5. Surgical removal may be necessary

What is a pterygium?

Pterygia appears as a fleshy, wedge-shaped and vascularised growth on the surface of the eye. They grow from the inner or outer corner of the eye, moving towards the pupil.  Essentially, it is an extension of the conjunctiva growing across the cornea.

Pterygia occur in 1.1% of the Australian population. Further more, 12% of males aged over 60 years of age have one. Cancerous changes are uncommon, however, about 10% of surgically removed pterygiums have cancerous changes.

Causes of pterygium

Pterygium is caused by ultraviolet radiation exposure when the eye is inflamed. People who spend a lot of time in the sun especially in dry, dusty or salt water environments are most at risk. 

Pterygia frequently occur in hot sunny locations where sun exposure accumulates over time. So, surfers and other sun-worshippers commonly develop ptergyia. Occupations such as builders, farmers and fishermen also accumulate a large amount of sun exposure.  

With ongoing UV exposure the pterygium can continue to grow. They can develop abnormal cell changes, potentially leading to a type of skin cancer on the eye.


Pterygia are generally painless, however can become irritated in dry conditions.  Pterygia become swollen and red when inflammed. This can also cause a scratching or burning sensation. If it extends into the pupil region, it can cause distorted vision. 


An optometrist will microscopically examine the pterygia. Annual monitoring or surgical removal will be then be recommended. 


Small pterygia require annual examination to detect cancerous changes. Chilled, artificial tears or prescription drops can improve comfort at this stage. 

Surgical removal is recommended when a pterygium is likely to adversely affect vision, is frequently becoming irritated, shows cancerous changes or is growing rapidly.

Reducing your risk

To avoid a pterygium starting or worsening on your eyes, it is important to wear good quality, wrap-around sunglasses with good UV protection. A hat is also important when outdoors. While swimming, UV protecting goggles are important.

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