Pterygium (pronounced “tuh – rij – ee –uhm) is sometimes called surfer’s eye. It is a common condition we see around Noosa and once you know what it is, you’ll probably realise you know someone with this condition.
5 key points
- Caused by excessive UV exposure
- If large enough can affect the vision
- Causes irritation to the eye
- Wearing good quality sunglasses when outdoors helps to prevent a pterygium from forming
- 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. Furthermore, 12% of males aged over 60 years of age have one. Cancerous changes are uncommon, however, about 10% of surgically removed growth 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 saltwater 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 pterygia. 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 of the eye.
Pterygia are generally painless, however, can become irritated in dry conditions. The growth becomes swollen and red when inflamed. 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 an annual examination to detect cancerous changes. Chilled, artificial tears or prescription drops can improve comfort at this stage.
Surgical removal is recommended when a growth 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.