Understanding Pterygium
Understanding Pterygium

Understanding Pterygium

A pterygium is a common eye condition where tissue grows in a wing shape across the cornea, the part of the eye that is normally visible when your eye is open. Discover more about this condition and how it can be treated.

A pterygium is a common eye condition where tissue grows in a wing shape across the cornea, the part of the eye that is normally visible when your eye is open. The condition normally occurs in hot countries or in people who work outside for long periods of time. It is sometimes known as ‘Surfer’s Eye’.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of pterygium can include:

  • Eye Irritation
  • Eye Redness
  • Watery Eyes 
  • Blurred Vision
  • Feeling of something in your eye.

Complications of Pterygium

In some cases, a pterygium can form on the centre of the cornea, which can affect your vision and cause the shape of the cornea to change. This can result in a condition known as astigmatism.

What causes Pterygium?

Pterygium is commonly caused by frequent exposure to UV light or severe eye irritation from a dry climate, therefore people who live in hot countries or work outdoors for long periods of time may be at an increased risk. It is also thought that dust, wind and dry-eye syndrome may be contributory factors.

Pterygium usually occurs in those over the age of thirty and is not usually found in children.

How Your Eye Works: The Basics

There are four main components that help the eye function: 

The Retina is at the back of the eye. It is a layer of tissue that senses light and colour, converting this information into electrical signals.
The Optic Nerve transmits electrical signals from the retina to the brain for interpretation. This enables us to understand what the eye is seeing and interpret the messages. 
The Cornea and Lens are found at the front of the eye. They focus light coming into the eye, which allows you to form an image on the retina. In cases of pterygium, the lining of the eyelid (conjunctiva) grows across the cornea, most commonly from the nasal side of the eye.

How is Pterygium Diagnosed? 

Your ophthalmologist should be able to see a pterygium during a routine eye exam. If you notice any unusual changes to your eyes, then book an appointment with an eye doctor as soon as possible.

Eye test

An eye test may vary depending on what the optometrist is looking for, and if a certain condition is suspected they may conduct further tests, or refer you for a more in-depth exam relating to the condition. However, a standard eye test that can help diagnose your vision problems will usually include:

Family history symptoms

Your optometrist will usually ask about any history of eye problems in your family and if you have any recurring symptoms, as well as how long you’ve been having them. They may also ask about your diet, lifestyle, and medication. Medical history, symptoms, or age may require further testing to rule out other eye conditions that are not obvious from the examination.

Eye exam

You will have your eye examined to check for any underlying problems, a light will be shone through your pupil to check the inside of your eye as well as your pupil’s reflexes. You will also have your eye movements and co-ordination checked.

Vision tests

A visual acuity test allows the optometrist to evaluate the extent of your visual impairment. Using a Snellen chart, you will be asked to read the letters on each row, the further down the chart you can read, the better your vision. Corrective lenses are usually able to help most people read the letters further down the chart. If they do not, there may be an underlying condition that is impeding your vision.

How do you treat Pterygium? 

Pterygium can be treated in the following ways:

Lubricating eye drops and ointments

Smaller and milder cases of pterygium may only require lubricating eye drops or ointment to ease the discomfort and irritation.


If the pterygium becomes large or uncomfortable, you may be given surgery to remove it. During surgery:

  • A local anaesthetic is used to make the eyes numb.
  • Your eyelids are kept open while the surgeon scrapes the pterygium off the cornea and the sclera.
  • Part of the conjunctiva from under your upper lid is taken out to be grafted onto the sclera.
  • The stitches used are absorbable and should fall out naturally in a number of weeks.

You may experience the following problems after surgery:

  • Pain – Painkillers may be used to reduce the pain, but if it becomes worse even with the medication you should visit accident and emergency.
  • Redness – This should improve after a while.
  • Eye Surface Roughness – This may require lubricating eye drops.
  • Eye Surface and Muscle Scarring – This can restrict your ability to move your eye around, and can cause double vision. You should contact the hospital or your eye care specialist if this occurs.
  • Regrowth of the Pterygium – This is rare, but it can cause further problems. Contact your hospital or eye care specialist as they may be able to re-operate.