Pterygium is a raised, fleshy, triangular-shaped growth on your eye’s conjunctive. Long-term exposure to UV light is the main cause. Your eyes may be red, swollen and irritated in mild cases. If pterygium grows, your vision may be blocked or blurred. Treatments include symptom-relieving eye drops and ointment to surgery if your vision is affected.
Pterygium (pronounced tur-IJ-ee-um) is a raised, fleshy growth on your eye’s conjunctiva. Your conjunctiva is the clear membrane that covers the white of your eye. The conjunctiva normally ends at the clear part of your eye, the cornea. It also lines the inside of your eyelids.
Pterygium comes from the Greek words pteryx, which means “wing,” and pterygion, which means “fin.” Pterygium is a wing-like or triangular-shaped thickening of an area of conjunctiva tissue. It grows from either corner of your eye, but usually more often from the corner closest to your nose. It spreads outward, sometimes onto the cornea of your eye.
Pterygium can affect one or both of your eyes but usually not at the same time. When it affects both eyes at the same time, it’s called bilateral pterygium.
The nickname “surfer’s eye” comes from the idea that surfers work in the same elements that cause pterygium — sun, wind and dusty conditions.
Pterygium is not cancer. However, it can grow large enough to cover part of your cornea (the clear dome that covers your pupil and iris). When this happens, it can affect your vision. In rare cases, pterygium can scar your cornea. Without treatment, you may lose vision.
Pterygium can grow and spread slowly throughout your life or it may stop at some point.
Both are growths on your eye’s conjunctiva.
Pingueculum is a raised yellowish or white growth on the white of your eye. It stays on the conjunctiva and doesn’t overlap onto your cornea. It usually doesn’t cause symptoms or needs to be removed.
Pterygium is a fleshy growth that has many blood vessels in it. It may remain small or can grow and spread onto the cornea. It may start as a pingueculum.
Pterygium can happen to anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors in the sun without eye protection. It’s more commonly seen in older adults (over 80 years of age) who live near the equator. Children rarely get pterygium.
About 12% of people in the world develop pterygium.
Sometimes you’ll have no symptoms before pterygium appears. When symptoms do develop, they range from mild to severe.
Early signs and symptoms include:
Late signs and symptoms include:
Pterygium is an overgrowth of your conjunctiva tissue. It’s thought to be caused by:
Your eye care provider can diagnose pterygium with a slit lamp. A slip lamp is a type of microscope that focuses a narrow (a “slit”) line of bright light on your eye. It helps your provider look at the front and inside of your eye. A slit lamp exam is a normal part of an eye exam.
Other eye tests your provider may perform include:
Your provider may also take pictures of your eye to track changes in the growth of pterygium over time. Your eye care provider may order other tests to rule out other conditions, including cancers that affect the eye.
If your symptoms don’t cause discomfort or interfere with your vision, you probably don’t need treatment. Your provider will schedule office visits to see if the pterygium is growing or causing vision problems.
Your eye care provider may:
You may need surgery if:
There are several surgical strategies. They include:
Your eye care provider will numb your eye with local anesthesia. You’ll be given light sedation. The pterygium is carefully removed from your eye.
If you’re having surgery with an amniotic membrane, the membrane is cut to the proper size and placed to cover the area where the pterygium was removed. A special glue or stitches hold the amniotic membrane in place.
If you’re having an autograft surgery, your surgeon removes a section of conjunctiva from under your eyelid to cover the opening. A special glue or stitches hold the new tissue in place while it heals.
Surgery typically lasts between 30 minutes and one hour.
You’ll likely wear an eye patch over your eye for a couple of days.
You’ll apply steroid eye drops to the affected eye for a few weeks or months. These eye drops help reduce inflammation and the chance of the growth returning.
You can return to your normal daily activities in a few days.
You and your provider will watch for pterygium recurrence. This is most likely to happen in the first 12 months after surgery.
Risks and complications of surgery include:
You can lower your risk of developing pterygium, slow its growth if you have one, or help prevent its return after surgery if you:
Most individuals who have a pterygium don’t need treatment. Medications can treat symptoms if you have them. If the pterygium blocks or blurs your vision, it can be removed.
If you have surgery, the chance of pterygium returning depends on the type of surgery you had and the amount of sun exposure after surgery.
Pterygium return rates are:
Between 5% and 10% if your surgery was pterygium removal followed by tissue replacement with a conjunctival flap or autograft.
Call your provider if you notice any change in your vision or if uncomfortable symptoms return.
You and your eye care provider will schedule regular visits to check your vision and to track the growth of the pterygium.
If pterygium causes eye discomfort, you probably shouldn’t wear your contact lenses. Ask your eye care provider.
Pterygium can block or blur your vision if it continues to grow across your cornea. Sometimes pterygium can scar your cornea, but this is rare. The scarring can be treated if it’s minor. If the scarring is major, damage to your corneal can cause blindness. It’s technically possible but rare that pterygium would result in blindness. Cases are usually minor or treated with medication or surgery if needed.
It won’t go away on its own. A small pterygium may never cause problems for the eye as long as it stops growing. In most cases, the only way to completely remove a pterygium is with surgery.
Pterygium is an overgrowth of the conjunctiva tissue itself. It results in a raised area on your conjunctiva — the clear membrane that covers the entire front of your eye.
A cataract is a clouding of the lens of your eye. Your lens is behind your iris (colored part of your eye). Your lens focuses light and works with your brain to process information and create a picture of what you see.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Although pterygium looks odd and even scary, it’s not a serious eye condition. You may not even need treatment. If it’s causing symptoms, call your eye care provider. Artificial tears and steroid ointment or eye drops can relieve your eye discomfort. If the pterygium spreads and interferes with your vision or if you’re uncomfortable with the way your eye looks, your eye care provider can help. They will talk with you about surgical options as well as risks, complications and outcomes. To protect your eyes, remember to wear sunglasses with UV ray protection when you’re outside, even on cloudy days.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/20/2022.
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