What Is Surfer's Eye?

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on September 16, 2022
4 min read

Though it’s named for a certain type of athlete, this common complaint can affect anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors.

The main symptom of surfer's eye, or pterygium (pronounced tur-IJ-ee-um), 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.

It can look scary, but it isn’t cancer. The growth might spread slowly during your life or stop after a certain point. In extreme cases, it can cover your pupil and cause vision problems.

The growth could show up in one eye or both. When it affects both, it’s known as a bilateral pterygium.

Though it isn’t usually a serious condition, it can cause annoying symptoms. You might feel like you have something in your eye. Or it may get red and irritated and require medical or surgical treatment. You might also feel self-conscious because people may ask you about your eye being red all the time.

Sometimes, there are none -- it just shows up.

When there are symptoms, your eye might:

  • Burn
  • Feel gritty
  • Itch
  • Feel like you have something in it
  • Look red

If the growth gets onto your cornea (the pupil area of your eye), it could change its shape and cause blurry vision or double vision.

Before it appears, you might notice a related condition called a pinguecula (pin-GWEK-yoo-la). This is a yellowish patch or bump on the conjunctiva and can get red if irritated.

The things that make you most likely to get it include:

  • Lots of exposure to ultraviolet light (like from the sun)
  • Dry eyes
  • Irritants like dust and wind

You’re most likely to get it if you live near the equator and you’re a man between 20 and 40. But it can affect anyone who lives in a sunny place.

You get a pinguecula the same way -- lots of time in the sun without eye protection such as sunglasses (wraparound sunglasses are the best protection). Your eye's tears may not evenly cover a pinguecula which can cause your eyes to feel dry and gritty, so it might feel like you have something stuck in it. It may become red.

See an eye doctor if you have any symptoms. They can diagnose the condition by looking at the front part of your eye with a special microscope called a slit lamp.

You probably won’t need treatment if your symptoms are mild. If the condition causes temporary redness or irritation, your doctor will treat it with:

  • Over-the-counter eye ointments or wetting drops
  • Eyedrops that clear up redness and irritation
  • Prescription steroid eyedrops to ease redness, itching, swelling, and pain

If the growth causes discomfort, interferes with your vision, or is not cosmetically acceptable to you, your doctor can remove it during an outpatient procedure.

Like any surgery, there may be complications. These include:

  • Return of a more aggressive growth
  • Scars

Most of the time, doctors only suggest surgery if:

  • Other treatments have failed
  • Your eyesight is at risk
  • The look of it bothers you

One type of surgery uses your tissue from your conjunctiva or a placenta to fill the empty space after the lesion is gone. The growth is removed and the filler is glued or stitched onto the affected area. Another type of surgery uses medication called mitomycin-C to help prevent scar tissue formation.

The procedure typically takes 30 to 45 minutes. You’ll probably wear an eye patch for a day or two. Your eye will feel uncomfortable and scratchy for a few days afterwards. You can return to work or normal activities in a few days.

You make take steroid eyedrops for several weeks or months. They’ll ease inflammation and make it less likely for a new lesion to form. It may seem icky to graft tissue into your eye, but it can lower the chances that a growth will return.

If you do have the operation, pay careful attention to your eye for the next year. Most growths that come back will return within the first 12 months after surgery. After surgery it is prudent to always wear wraparound frame sunglasses outdoors.

Yes. Wear sunglasses every day. That includes overcast days -- clouds don’t stop ultraviolet (UV) light. Choose shades that block 99%-100% of both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation.

Wraparound styles provide the best shield against ultraviolet light, dust, and wind. Wear them when you’re in the car, too. Unlike the windshield, your car’s side windows don’t protect you from UV rays. You can also apply a protective film to your side windows to help protect you when you're driving.

Experts say to choose a hat with a brim to protect your eyes from UV light. And use artificial tears to keep your eyes moist in dry climates.

Show Sources


Geteyeyesmart.org: "What Is a Pinguecula and a Pterygium?"

National Eye Institute: "Facts About The Cornea and Corneal Disease."

Environmental Protection Agency: "PREVENT EYE DAMAGE: Protect Yourself from UV Radiation."

Coday, M. Digital Journal of Ophthalmology.

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