Pterygium (pronounced tur-IJ-ee-um) is a common eye condition that affects people who spend a lot of time outdoors. People with pterygium have a growth of pink, fleshy tissue on the white of the eye. It usually forms on the side closest to the nose.
Pterygium is also known as surfer's eye because it often affects surfers.
For most people, breaking, losing, or misplacing their glasses is an annoying inconvenience. But for Christiaan Rollich, who was severely nearsighted, not wearing glasses or contacts meant not seeing at all.
"My vision was so bad the army wouldn't accept me," says Rollich, who grew up in the Netherlands and moved to the U.S. 15 years ago. "If I took out my contacts, I wouldn't be able identify anybody in the room, no matter how close they were."
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It is a noncancerous lesion that usually grows slowly throughout life. Or it may stop growing after a certain point. In rare cases a pterygium can continue growing until it covers the pupil of the eye and interferes with vision.
A pterygium may affect one or both eyes. When it affects both eyes, it is called a bilateral pterygium.
Pterygium is usually not a serious condition. But it can cause annoying symptoms such as a feeling of a foreign body in the eye.
Symptoms of Pterygium
Sometimes, a pterygium causes no symptoms other than its appearance. An enlarging pterygium, however, may cause redness and inflammation.
In some cases, a pterygium can grow onto the cornea (the clear, outer layer of the eye). This can distort the shape of the cornea, causing a condition called astigmatism. The result can be blurred vision.
Symptoms of pterygium may include:
Sensation of a foreign body in the eye
Causes of Pterygium
It's not clear what causes a pterygium to develop. But most experts believe that significant risk factors include:
Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light
Irritants such as dust and wind
Pterygium occurrence is much greater among people who live near the equator. But it also can develop in anyone who lives in a sunny climate. It's most often seen in young adults ages 20 to 40. It appears to be more common in men than in women.
Pterygium is often preceded by a related noncancerous condition called pinguecula (pin-WEK-yoo-la). This is a yellowish patch or bump on the conjunctiva near the cornea. The conjunctiva is the thin, moist membrane on the surface of the eye.
Treatment of Pterygium
See an ophthalmologist if you have symptoms of pterygium. He or she can diagnose the condition by examining the front part of your eye with a microscope called a slit lamp.
Pterygium usually doesn't require treatment if symptoms are mild. If a temporary worsening of the inflamed condition causes redness or irritation, it can be treated with:
Lubricating eyedrops or ointments, such as Blink or Refresh drops
Occasional use of vasoconstrictor eyedrops, such as Naphcon A
Short course of steroid eyedrops, such as FML or Lotemax
If the lesion causes persistent discomfort or interferes with vision, it can be surgically removed during an outpatient procedure. You and your doctor may also take into account appearance and the size of the pterygium when making a decision about surgery.