Pterygium or surfer’s eye – Causes, Prevention & Treatment

Pterygia of all shapes and sizes are extremely common in Australia. It is estimated that they occur in up to 10 percent of all Queenslanders and are probably slightly less frequent in more southern states in Australia.

But do you know what Pterygium is, what causes it and how it can be prevented or ultimately treated? Pterygium (pronounced tur-IJ-ee-um) is a common eye condition that affects people who spend a lot of time outdoors. Because it often affects surfers, it is also known as “surfer's eye”. It can affect anyone, though, even children who don’t wear sunglasses outside.

People with pterygium have a growth of pink, fleshy tissue on the white of the eye. The growth usually forms on the side closest to the nose and grows toward the center of the eye.

Pterygium is a non-cancerous lesion that usually grows slowly throughout life. It may even stop growing after a certain point. In advanced cases, a pterygium can continue growing until it covers the pupil of the eye and interferes with vision.

A pterygium may affect one or both eyes.

Pterygium is usually not a serious condition. It can, though, cause annoying symptoms such as the feeling of having a foreign body in the eye. Sometimes the growth becomes red and irritated and requires medical treatment.

Most patients have no symptoms from the pterygium except that they may be aware that there is a small piece of reddish tissue growing over the coloured part of the eye from the white of the eye.

In some patients, this pterygium may become red and inflamed in irritating circumstances, such as smoke-filled rooms, air conditioning, lack of sleep, sunlight, etc.

In a very small percentage of patients, the pterygium may actually interfere and reduce vision by pulling on the cornea (crystal window of the eye) and deforming it (astigmatism), or by actually coming so close to the line of vision that it interferes with vision.

In an extremely small number of patients, the pterygium may actually prevent the eye from moving fully in all directions, particularly in the direction towards the ear.


Although we do not know all the factors that are responsible for the development of a pterygium in the first place, it has been identified an extremely strong relationship with how much sunlight one is exposed to in the first 10 years of life, and also to ongoing sunlight exposure after that time.

For example, a child growing up for the first 10 years of life in Queensland has a 40 times increased risk of developing a pterygium compared to a cousin growing up for the same period of time in Victoria. This is as a result of the increased sunlight exposure in Queensland compared to Victoria.


Prevention is better than cure and there are strong reasons to believe that the use of adequate protection of the eyes against sunlight may reduce the rate of this disease considerably.

It is essential that children before kindergarten and primary school age should be kept out of the midday sun and if this is not possible they should wear a broad-brimmed bonnet, be wheeled in a stroller with an awning and wear appropriate sunglasses at the earliest age possible. By the time the child is of primary school age, sunglasses should be always worn whenever outdoors.

When purchasing a pair of sunglasses, it is important they are labelled as compliant with Australian Standard (AS 1067.1 1990 Sunglasses and Fashion Spectacles). This standard gives the safety and performance requirements for lenses and frames. Also look for an EPF UV rating of either 9 or 10, where the lenses transmit almost no ultraviolet radiation. This eye protection factor is set by the Australian Radiation Laboratory and offers protection above that required by the Australian Standard.

When protecting the eyes from ultraviolet radiation, wrap-around and close fitting sunglasses are the most effective type.

Veretti Kids sunglasses comply with all Australian Standard and are the best to protect your child’s eyes against sunlight.


Many pterygia can be safely left alone and just watched. In all occasions, it is always advisable – we think - to have an examination with an eye care professional every year or two to check that the pterygium is not growing.

In those patients in whom redness is the main concern, the occasional use of over the counter eye drops can give temporary relief.

In some cases, surgery may be the appropriate method to treat this condition.


The Australian Pterygium Centre

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