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Surf’s up! It’s nearly that time of year; time to soak up the sun and hit the waves. And you know the drill – lather up with sunscreen to protect your skin, but don’t forget to protect your eyes too. Have you ever heard of surfer’s eye? Its medical name is pterygium; and after time in the ocean and out in the sun, it can leave your eyes irritated and inflamed – even if you don’t surf.
What is a Pterygium?
A pterygium is a wedge or triangular-shaped growth of tissue on the eye’s conjunctiva, the thin membrane that covers the inner surface of the eyelid and the white part of the eyeball. This usually benign growth eventually invades the cornea and may remain small or grow large enough to interfere with vision. Pterygia usually occur on the side of the eye closest to the nose, and they can affect one eye or both eyes. A large, advancing pterygium can also distort the shape of the front surface of the eye and cause astigmatism. Pterygia may contain blood vessels and form scar tissue that can permanently disfigure the eye.
Pterygia, or surfer’s eye, frequently affects surfers and others who spend a significant amount of time outdoors in the sun. Surfing provides just the right conditions for pterygia to form, but there are other risk factors that all of us should keep in mind:
• Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light – the reflection of sunlight off the water increases the intensity of UV exposure
• Irritants such as dust, dirt, sand, wind, and sea spray
• Changing atmospheric humidity, such as moving from dry air conditioning to high humidity outdoors
• Constant dry eyes
• Being male – men are twice as likely than women to develop a pterygium
Symptoms of a Pterygium
A pterygium may not include any symptoms other than the appearance of the growth on the eye. But some pterygia may become swollen and give you that unwanted feeling of something constantly in your eye. Here are a few other symptoms of a pterygium:
• Blurry vision
• Itching or burning sensation
• Gritty feeling in the eye
Prevention and Treatment of a Pterygium (Surfer’s Eye)
Treatment of a pterygium depends on the size, growth rate, and related symptoms. In many cases, an eye doctor will prescribe an eye lubricant or mild steroid eye drops to reduce swelling and redness; but in some cases – if the growth is large enough to threaten vision or cause constant discomfort – surgery is the best option. But it’s important to note that despite proper surgical removal, a pterygium may return. In fact, the rate of recurrence is as high as 40 percent and is more likely among people under the age of 40.
The best thing to do to avoid a pterygium, or surfer’s eye, is prevention from the risk factors mentioned earlier. Take these easy steps to keep your eyes safe while under the sun and out in the surf:
• Wear sunglasses that block 100% of UV light, even on cloudy days
• Cover your head with a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and eyes from the sun
• Apply artificial tears to your eyes in dry conditions