Surfer’s Eye

What You Need To Know About Pterygium (Surfer’s Eye)

It’s no secret that the sun’s UV rays are harmful to our skin. But have you ever considered how bright sunlight can affect your eyes? Too much exposure to the sun’s damaging rays can cause a range of eye problems, including a condition called pterygium (tuh-RIJ-ee-um).

A pterygium is an elevated growth of pink fleshy tissue on the eye. It usually begins on the side of the eye that’s closest to the nose and grows inward toward the pupil, spreading in a wedge shape across the clear part of the eye (the cornea). Although pterygia (the plural of pterygium) are localised issues on the surface of the eye, they can still cause discomfort and affect vision if they grow big enough to affect the cornea.

Queensland has one of the highest rates of pterygia in the world, most likely due to our sunny climate, high UV exposure and outdoor lifestyle. Pterygia is more common in people who spend lots of time in bright sunlight, especially on water (which reflects the sun’s UV rays), which is why the condition is commonly referred to as ‘surfer’s eye’.

Although regular beachgoers are more at risk of developing a pterygium, you don’t need to be a surfer to experience the condition. Outdoor workers such as gardeners and ‘tradies’ are also at risk. Let’s take a look at what you need to know about preventing and treating pterygium.

What causes pterygia?

UV radiation appears to be the primary cause for the development of pterygia. The condition usually develops in people from 30 to 50 years of age, and is rarely seen in children, which indicates age may also be an influencing factor.

It has been reported that sunlight children are exposed to in their first 10 years of life (and ongoing sunlight exposure after that time) strongly influences their likelihood of developing a pterygium when they’re older.

How to minimise your risk of developing surfer’s eye

The biggest thing you can do to avoid developing this eye condition is to wear UV protective sunglasses whenever outside. Even on cloudy days the sun’s UV level can still be severe, so make it a habit to have sunglasses next to your front door, or in your bag.

Take care to purchase sunglasses that are labelled as compliant with the Australian standard to ensure your eyes get their proper protection from the sun. Look for sunglasses with a high EPF UV rating. Lenses with a 9 or 10 rating offer the strongest protection, as they transmit almost no ultraviolet radiation.

Eye protection is especially important for children before kindergarten and primary school age. If sunglasses are not an option, at least make sure they wear a broad-brimmed hat when enjoying time outdoors.

How are pterygia treated?

Treatment of surfer’s eye depends on the size and growth rate of the pterygium. Pterygium should be monitored by an Ophthalmologist to check that it is picked up well before it grows across the central cornea that can affect vision.

If the pterygium is small, Dr Park may prescribe lubricants eye drops to reduce discomfort. A topical lubricants may also be prescribed if the eye is dry.

If the pterygium is growing to a size that affects the cornea, surgery may be required to remove it. An auto-conjunctival transplant (using your own natural conjunctival tissue as a donor tissue) is a procedure that removes the pterygium tissue and transplants some normal conjunctiva (the superficial layer of the eye) to the area.

The conjunctiva is taken from an area of your eye that has never been affected by UV light, such as from behind the top eyelid. After transplantation, the conjunctiva re-grows normally.

The procedure is a day surgery, and is performed under local anaesthetic. Most patients are back to work within 5-7 days. Most beneficially, a conjunctival transplantation reduces the risk of pterygia recurrence to around 3-5%.

Where to get more information

If you are noticing a build-up of tissue or redness on your eye, or would like more information about treating pterygia, speak to your General Practitioner for a referral to Westside Eye Clinic.

Specialist Ophthalmologist Dr Joseph Park offers the latest treatments for a wide range of optical issues from his Brisbane’s Westside eye clinic. Call us on 07 3715 5555 to discuss your condition.

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