A pterygium is a triangular or wedge shaped growth that develops on the conjunctiva of the eye and grows onto the cornea.
The conjunctiva is the clear, thin membrane that covers the white of the eye. The cornea is the clear covering on the front of the eye.
Pterygia are not harmful, but they can cause eye irritation and changes in vision.
This article outlines the causes and symptoms of pterygia, as well as the treatment options available. It also discusses the outlook for people who develop this eye condition.
Pterygia typically develop in the inner corner of the eye, next to the nose. They may grow in one or both eyes.
In the early stages, a pterygium may not be very noticeable. It is also unlikely to cause any discomfort or changes in vision.
If the pterygium continues to grow, however, it may become more visible. The growth will typically appear fleshy and triangular. It may be red, pink, or yellow.
A person may also experience:
- redness of the conjunctiva
- itching, dryness, and burning in one or both eyes
- a sensation of having sand or grit in the eye
If the growth spreads to the cornea in the center of the eye, a person may experience blurred vision.
Some people refer to a pterygium as “surfer’s eye,” because the condition often affects people who spend a lot of time in the sun.
However, pterygia can also develop as a result of eye irritation from wind, dust, or dirt.
One 2014 review suggests that genetics also play a role in the development of pterygia.
The authors note that although UV exposure does play a role, even people who have low UV exposure can develop pterygia. Likewise, some people who have high UV exposure may never develop the condition.
According to the National Eye Institute, pterygia are most common in people aged 20–40.
A person should see their doctor if they experience any bothersome symptoms, such as eye irritation or changes in vision. The doctor may refer the person to see an eye doctor, such as an ophthalmologist or optometrist.
The eye doctor will ask about a person’s symptoms. They may also ask if the person has a family history of pterygia or any other type of eye condition.
Typically, an eye doctor will use an eye exam to diagnose a pterygium. During the exam, they may use a special light and magnifying lens to view the eye in detail.
In many cases, pterygia do not require treatment. If the pterygium is small and is not causing issues, a person may choose to manage it with home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.
If the pterygium becomes larger or causes bothersome symptoms, however, a person may require prescription medications or surgery.
The following home treatments could help a person manage the symptoms of a pterygium:
- using OTC artificial tears to keep the eye lubricated and relieve minor discomfort
- using an eye ointment when artificial tears are not sufficient
- switching to wearing glasses, if contact lenses are contributing to eye irritation or pain
Sometimes, home treatments are not enough to control the symptoms of a pterygium. In such cases, a doctor may recommend using prescription eye drops instead.
Some drops contain a lubricant to help reduce dryness and irritation. Others contain a steroid, which helps alleviate swelling and inflammation.
In some cases, a pterygium may interfere with a person’s vision or cause symptoms that they cannot manage with OTC or prescription treatment.
In such cases, a doctor may recommend surgery to remove the pterygium.
However, pterygia often grow back after surgery. For this reason, a doctor may only recommend surgery if a person’s symptoms are severe.
To reduce the likelihood of the pterygium growing back, a person should take steps to protect their eyes from sun, dust, and other irritants. They should also see their eye doctor for follow-up care.
Certain medications and medical procedures could help prevent the recurrence of a pterygium following surgery.
According to a 2016 review, using the treatment mitomycin C (MMC) before, during, or after surgery may help prevent the pterygium from growing back.
MMC works by preventing certain cells from growing on the conjunctiva. A surgeon can inject this treatment into the eye or apply it to the pterygium in the form of eye drops.
A separate 2016 review found that using a graft of conjunctival tissue with surgery may help prevent recurrence of a pterygium. In this case, the surgeon will remove a small part of a person’s healthy conjunctiva and attach it to the area of pterygium removal.
Pterygia do not usually cause serious health complications, such as cancer.
However, a large pterygium may cause daily discomfort or interfere with a person’s vision. A pterygium that is easily visible may also cause cosmetic concerns for some people.
A person should see their doctor or eye doctor if they suspect that they have a pterygium or if they have a pterygium that is growing or causing symptoms.
A pinguecula is an overgrowth of calcium, fat, or protein on the conjunctiva. It may look like a small yellow bump on the white of the eye.
Sometimes, a pinguecula can develop into a pterygium. As the growth becomes larger, it develops its own blood supply. The extra blood supply causes the growth to become even larger and more bothersome. It may also take on a pink or reddish color.
The best way to prevent a pterygium is to protect the eyes from irritants such as:
- dust and grit
To protect the eyes, a person can:
- Wear sunglasses: People should wear sunglasses when outdoors, including while traveling in a vehicle. People should opt for wraparound glasses, which protect the eyes from every angle and offer 99–100% UV protection. People should try to wear sunglasses even when it is cloudy, raining, or snowing outside.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat: A wide-brimmed hat offers additional sun protection when outside.
- Wear suitable eye protection: People should wear protective glasses or goggles when spending time in a dusty or dirty environment.
- Use artificial tears: Artificial tears are lubricating eye drops that help alleviate dryness and irritation.
People should also see an eye doctor regularly to check for pterygia and other eye conditions.
Because pterygia do not usually cause serious health problems, the outlook for people with this condition is generally good.
In some cases, a pterygium may grow only a little, then stop growing altogether.
To prevent a pterygium from growing, a person should manage the condition at home and protect the eyes from sunlight and irritants as much as possible.
A pterygium is a benign, fleshy triangle of tissue that typically develops in the inner corner of the eye.
A pterygium will not usually cause serious health complications. However, it can sometimes cause discomfort and problems with vision. A noticeable pterygium may also be a cosmetic concern for some people.
A person should see a doctor if they notice any bumps, growths, or changes in the eye. The doctor may refer them to an ophthalmologist, who specializes in diagnosing and treating eye conditions.