Unsightly but harmless is a pterygium on the eye. These wing-shaped fibrous growths are often called surfer’s eye due to their frequent appearance on sun- and surf-loving aficionados. Though pterygia are not cancerous, no one wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, “I think I’d like a pterygium today”. If you fall into the intersect of the “sun and surf aficionado” with “don’t want a pterygium today” Venn diagram, keep reading to find out how you can take steps to avoid developing this eye condition.
The Low-Down on Pterygia
Pterygia are overgrowths of the conjunctiva, which is the transparent membrane covering the whites of the eye. This piece of fleshy, triangular tissue extends from the whites across the clear cornea. They can pop up on one or both eyes, typically the side of the eye closest to the nose, but can also develop on the temple-side of the eye.
Along with pingueculae (singular, pinguecula), pterygia are one of the most common conditions of the eye’s surface. In the US, the incidence of pterygia varies between 2% to 15% of the population, depending on geographical latitude. The highest rates of pterygia worldwide tend to be found between 40° below and above the equator, an area affectionately known as the pterygium belt.
Development of a pterygium is thought to be due to a number of possible factors, including:
- Ultraviolet radiation exposure
- Environmental irritants
- Viral infection
- Genetic factors
Pterygia generally don’t come with any symptoms but if they become inflamed or irritated, you can find your eye may become red and feel gritty or mildly sore. If a pterygium is large enough to impinge on the visual axis of your cornea, you will also start to notice a deterioration to your vision.
4 Ways to Prevent Pterygia
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of a pterygium.
1. Wear sunglasses when outdoors
As pterygia are largely associated with UV exposure, it stands to reason to protect your eyes from ultraviolet radiation. Remember that UV radiation can still be present even on an overcast, cloudy day. For choice of sunglasses, lean towards frames that provide decent coverage and can sit close to your face.
2. Wear a hat when outdoors
Even the best-fitting sunglass frames can still let some UV radiation in around the edges. If sunglass goggles are not for you, a hat is an added layer of protection for your eyes, particularly from radiation coming directly from overhead.
3. Avoid irritants from the environment
Environmental irritants include dust, wind, chemical pollutants, and drying conditions. Admittedly, it can be difficult to avoid these, especially if your occupation regularly sends you outdoors. Reducing your time in these conditions as much as possible may be helpful, as well as wearing glasses or safety goggles where appropriate. If you must bring your eyes into these environments often, cleanse and lubricate them with eye drops afterward.
4. Manage any dry eye.
There is some suggestion in the research that dry eye disease plays a role in pterygium development. Dry eye disease is a complex condition in itself, with the spectrum of symptoms ranging from entirely asymptomatic to debilitating pain and visual disturbance. Treatments for dry eye are also quite varied. The simplest remedies for mild to moderate dry eye are lubricating eye drops and warm compresses.
Keep in mind that some individuals have a genetic or hereditary susceptibility to pterygia, so it’s possible to still develop one after following all these tips. If you do notice a pterygium, always check in with your eyecare professional, as pterygia share some risk factors with eye cancers.
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