What is Surfer’s Eye?
Also known as pterygium (pronounced tur·ij·ee·um), surfer’s eye is an abnormal fleshy growth on the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the clear tissue that covers the white part of your eye.
This raised, triangle-shaped growth begins at either corner of your eye. Most of the time, a pterygium grows from the corner near your nose.
As it progresses, it can grow into the cornea or the clear layer protecting the surface of your eye. Eventually, a pterygium can cover your pupil and impair your central vision.
The pink, fleshy growth may affect one eye (unilateral) or both eyes (bilateral pterygium). You can also have a single growth (pterygium) or multiple growths simultaneously (pterygia).
Surfer’s eye is benign (noncancerous) and usually isn’t serious. But it can lead to vision problems and make seeing shapes, colors, and details difficult.
Thankfully, surfer’s eye is a treatable and preventable eye condition.
Signs and Symptoms of Surfer’s Eye
Surfer's eye progresses slowly in some people, while others may notice a sudden growth without experiencing any symptoms.
Early signs and symptoms of surfer’s eye include:
- A pink slightly raised growth on your eye
- Eye irritation and redness
- Feeling like sand is in your eye
- Itchy eyes
- Dry eyes
- Blurry vision
- A burning sensation
If the growth extends to the pupil area of your eye, it can cause blurred vision or double vision.
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Pinguecula vs. Pterygium
Pinguecula and pterygium are two different conditions that are easy to confuse. They’re both raised growths on the conjunctiva. Sometimes, a pinguecula appears before a pterygium.
Here’s how to tell them apart:
- Pinguecula. A yellowish growth that may contain deposits of fat, protein, or calcium.
- Pterygium. A growth of pink fleshy tissue that contains blood vessels.
What Causes Surfer's Eye?
Surfer’s eve is an overgrowth of conjunctival tissue. Scientists believe it’s caused by long-term exposure to UV light from the sun and eye irritants like dust and wind.
Despite the name, you don’t need to be a surfer to develop this condition. Anyone who spends a lot of time in sunny, windy, or dusty conditions—such as a beach—can get surfer’s eye.
Surfer's eye is 10 times more prevalent in places near the equator. Scientists believe the high levels of UV rays in these areas cause it.1,2
Risk Factors for Surfer’s Eye
Pterygium is a common eye condition in adults. According to studies, people ages 20 to 40 have the highest rates of pterygium.2
Risk factors include:
- Family history of pterygium
- Excessive sun exposure
- Exposure to dusty and windy conditions
- Living in a rural area
- Spending a lot of time outdoors
How is Surfer’s Eye Diagnosed?
A doctor can diagnose surfer's eye through a physical examination. They might also ask questions to identify possible causes.
An eye exam can help confirm your diagnosis and check for complications. Here are the exams:
A slit lamp is a microscope with light. Doctors use it to inspect structures inside and outside your eye.
They can look closer at the growing mass and confirm if it is a pterygium. A slit lamp exam can also help them assess if the growth has spread to the cornea.
A refraction test is normally used to check visual acuity. This test involves reading letters on a chart positioned 20 feet from your eyes.
If you have a surfer's eye, they can use it to determine vision changes.
This imaging test uses a computer to create a 3D map of your corneal surface. It allows an ophthalmologist to visualize the shape of your cornea, which helps them see how a pterygium affects your eyesight.
How is Surfer's Eye Treated?
You may not need treatment if the pterygium doesn’t interfere with your vision or cause discomfort. In this case, your doctor may suggest regular eye exams to monitor the growth.
If your symptoms are bothersome, your eye doctor may recommend:
- Artificial tears. Lubricating eye drops moisten the pterygium and relieve itching and burning. It also lessens the feeling that something is in your eye.
- Corticosteroid eye drops. Doctors may prescribe steroid eye drops to reduce inflammation and irritation.
When Is Surgery Needed?
Your ophthalmologist may recommend pterygium surgery if:
- Eye drops fail to relieve your symptoms
- The appearance of your eye bothers you
- The pterygium grows large enough to block your vision
- The growth changes the shape of your cornea, causing astigmatism
What Does Surgical Treatment Entail?
Pterygium surgery involves surgical removal of the abnormal tissue on your eye.
After removing the pterygium, your eye surgeon may cover the affected area with a transplant of healthy tissue (graft). This helps prevent the pterygium from returning.
Is Surfer’s Eye Preventable?
Yes. Pterygium is a preventable eye condition. Below are some tips to prevent it from occurring and from growing back after surgery:
- Wear sunglasses. Ensure they block up to 99% of ultraviolet rays, including UVA and UVB. Wraparound sunglasses also protect your eyes from wind, dust, and sand.
- Use other UV protection. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and have your car windows tinted to block UV light.
- Use eye drops. When the climate is too hot or dry, keep your eyes moisturized with artificial tears.
Most of the time, surfer’s eye doesn’t require treatment. If you experience discomfort, over-the-counter or prescription eye drops can help. A pterygium that blocks or blurs your vision can be removed.
A pterygium can grow back after surgical removal. You can reduce your risk for regrowth by opting for a tissue graft procedure and protecting your eyes from UV light after surgery.
Surfer’s eye, also known as pterygium, is an abnormal tissue growth on your eye. This common condition is caused by excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. Other causes include exposure to wind, sand, and dust.
Most people with surfer’s eye don’t need treatment. If a pterygium causes severe discomfort, medications may help. A pterygium that grows large enough to cover or change the shape of the cornea can affect your vision. In these cases, surgery may be recommended.
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