At first, a pterygium (tur-rid-gee-um) might not have any symptoms but as it gets larger, you might notice your eye looks red, is itchy or feels that there’s something in it. You may also notice a pink-coloured growth on your eye.
Occurring in one or both eyes, most pterygium start in the corner of the eye by your nose. As it gets bigger and crosses over the cornea, the clear covering over your eye, you might have blurry vision because it will warp the cornea causing an astigmatism. In extreme circumstances, the pterygium may progress over the cornea to obscure your vision.
Development of pterygium is linked with high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light exposure from spending much of the day outside. Those spending time on snow or water without proper sunglasses are most at risk because of the additional light reflected from these surfaces.
A pterygium is most likely to occur in adults between 20 and 50, particularly men, and is more prevalent in areas where the UV risk is higher and where there are more environmental irritants such as wind, dust, chemicals and air pollution. If you have light skin and eyes, then you’re also at most risk of developing a pterygium.
Your optician will diagnose a pterygium by closely examining your eyes using a magnifying slit lamp. They will also test your vision using an eye chart and may take photographs to monitor the size of the growth.
They will also be looking to rule out any other eye conditions such as:
Treatment for a pterygium will depend very much on how big the pterygium is and whether it’s affecting your sight. In the majority of cases, it is so mild that no treatment is needed.
If the pterygium is bothering you, eye drops can be used to alleviate inflamed and/or dry eyes caused by the growth. These eye drops may be available over-the-counter but your optometrist will let you know if you need a prescription for a stronger medication.
In some cases, you may need surgery to remove a pterygium.
Pterygium eye surgery
If the pterygium begins to obscure your vision or is causing significant discomfort, then you may need to have surgery to remove it. Although not nice to think about, it is a relatively quick procedure done using local anaesthetic; your ophthalmologist will discuss the process involved and any risks associated with the surgery.
After surgery you’ll need to wear an eyepatch for a couple of days but should be able to return to work and normal activities within a day. You’ll also need to use eye drops for several weeks after surgery and have your eye monitored for a return of the growth, which with modern surgical techniques has been improved from 40% to around 10% recurrence.
How can I prevent a pterygium?
The key way to prevent a pterygium is to protect your eyes from excessive UV light. You can do this by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block UV light – wraparound styles are even better.
If you do have a pterygium, you can slow it down by limiting your exposure to UV rays, dust, pollution and other irritants - the same advice goes for those who’ve had a pterygium removed and don’t want it to grow back.