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Pterygium is a benign growth but it can become aesthetically and visually impairing if not treated. Discover the treatments we offer.

What is pterygium?

The pterygium (sometimes called surfer’s eye) is a growth of pink, fleshy tissue on the conjunctiva, the clear tissue that lines your eyelids and covers your eyeball. It usually forms on the side closest to your nose and grows toward the pupil area.

What causes pterygium?

It’s thought to be caused by:

  • Long-term exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light (most common cause)
  • Eye irritation from hot and dry weather, wind and dust
  • Dry eyes

You’re most likely to get it if you live in a sunny place and if you spend a lot of time outdoors without eye protection. It’s more commonly seen in older adults (over 80 years of age) who live near the equator. Children rarely get pterygium. About 12% of people in the world develop pterygium. It can also happen to people who work with chemicals.

What are the symptoms of pterygium?

Early signs and symptoms include:

  • A slightly raised pink growth on your eye
  • Red, irritated or swollen eyes
  • Dry eyes, itchy eyes or burning eyes
  • Feeling like you have sand or grit is in your eye
  • Teary eyes.

Late signs and symptoms include:

  • Increase in the size and spread of the lesion
  • An unpleasant appearance of your eye due to the size of the lesion
  • Blurred vision or double vision (if pterygium grows onto your cornea).

Pterygium can be seen with the naked eye. With a slit lamp, we can see how vascularized it is. We can also see if there are intra corneal cells, which shows its evolution potential. When pterygium is here for a long time, people see the doctor because the corneal central zone is covered and the visual acuity drops.

How does pterygium evolve?

A regular surveillance is needed. If it gets bigger and without surgery, it could invade the visual axis, cause astigmatism and significantly impair the vision.

How is pterygium treated?

If your symptoms don’t cause discomfort or interfere with your vision, you probably don’t need treatment. Your doctor will schedule office visits to see if the pterygium is growing or causing vision problems. We may recommend eye ointments or lubricating drops/artificial tears or decongestant drops if your eye is uncomfortable. We can also prescribe steroid eye drops or eye ointments to reduce pain, redness, itching and swelling.

If symptoms are not relieved, if the pterygium grows so large that it blocks your vision or pulls on your cornea and changes its curve, causing astigmatism, if you think it’s unesthetic, you may need surgery. The doctor will remove the pterygium and cover the affected area with a healthy piece of conjunctiva (autograft surgery). The healthy conjunctiva is usually taken from behind the upper eyelid. This procedure is best for preventing the return of pterygium, but it’s a longer and more technical surgery. Surgery typically lasts between 30 minutes and one hour.

What can I expect during recovery after surgery?

You’ll likely wear an eye patch over your eye for a couple of days. You’ll apply steroid eye drops to the affected eye for a few weeks or months. These eye drops help reduce inflammation and the chance of the growth returning. You can return to your normal daily activities in a few days. You and your provider will watch for pterygium recurrence. This is most likely to happen in the first 12 months after surgery.

Can you prevent pterygium?

Yes. You should wear sunglasses every day. That includes overcast days -- clouds don’t stop ultraviolet (UV) light. Choose shades that block 100% of both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. Wrap around styles provide the best shield against ultraviolet light, dust, and wind.

  • Wear a hat with a brim to protect your eyes from UV light
  • Blink often
  • Use artificial tears to keep your eyes moist in dry climates