Everything You Need to Know About Surfer's Eye

Tips to Protect Your Eyes and Avoid Pterygium

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surfer's eye

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Surfer’s eye, otherwise known as pterygium, is a condition characterized by a pink, fleshy, wedge-shaped growth on the white part of the eyeball. It most commonly forms in the corner of the eye closest to the nose and extends across the surface of the eye towards the pupil. In more severe cases, surfer’s eye can cover the cornea and pupil, resulting in blurred vision.

Surfer’s eye may look scary, but the good news is that it’s benign and totally treatable. In fact, pterygia (the plural of pterygium) that affect the vision can be surgically removed in about 30 to 45 minutes. Read on to learn more about surfer’s eye and how to protect your vision from damage.

Symptoms

Some cases of surfer’s eye—especially minor cases—may not present any symptoms until the pterygium is big enough to see or feel. Until then, your eyes may feel irritated, itchy, gritty, or like they’re burning, and redness or blurred vision may occur. Very thick or large pterygia can even make it feel like there’s a foreign object stuck in your eye.

Before developing a case of surfer’s eye, you may notice a pinguecula, or a small, yellowish bump or patch, on the white part of your eye. These non-cancerous bumps are generally made up of deposits of fat, calcium, or protein, and can be precursors to surfer’s eye.

If your eyes feel itchy or irritated and you notice a growth on the surface of your eye, make an appointment with your ophthalmologist as soon as possible. Both pinguecula and surfer’s eye are benign and treatable but can cause discomfort and vision problems down the road.

Causes

Although it’s named after surfers, beachgoers aren’t the only ones who can develop surfer’s eye.

Some common causes of pterygium include:

  • Extensive exposure to ultra-violet light: People who spend a lot of time outdoors, for work or recreational purposes, are at an increased risk for developing surfer’s eye.
  • Past cases of dry eyes: If you’ve had or have dry eyes, you may be more susceptible to developing surfer’s eye.
  • Exposure to irritants: Dust, sand, and wind can all exacerbate surfer’s eye by worsening symptoms and contributing to the growths on the surface of the eye.
  • Your family history: Some researchers believe that those with a family history of pterygium are more likely to develop the condition than those who do not.

Anyone can develop surfer’s eye, but age, sex, and geographic location can increase your risk.

  • Most cases of surfer’s eye won't develop until after age 20; patients aged 20 to 40 are more likely to have pterygium (a single growth), while those over age 40 are more likely to develop pterygia (multiple growths).
  • Men are two times more likely to develop surfer’s eye than women.
  • People living closer to the equator are at an increased risk due to their exposure to stronger ultra-violet light. In the United States, the prevalence rate is less than 2 percent; rates increase to 5 to 15 percent in locations closer to the equator.

    Diagnosis

    If you start to develop any symptoms of surfer’s eye—especially any growths on the eyeball—visit your ophthalmologist. They'll be able to diagnose your condition based on a series of questions—Do you spend significant time outdoors? Do you have a family history of surfer’s eye?—and a physical examination. They will also likely examine the eye with a specially-designed microscope called a slit lamp.  

    Although surfer’s eye is benign and treatable, it’s important to rule out other serious ophthalmologic conditions, like trauma to the eyeball or squamous cell carcinoma, among others.

    Treatment

    Most cases of surfer’s eye don’t require extensive, ongoing treatment.

    In fact, minor cases don’t require treatment at all.

    If your condition is causing discomfort, however, your doctor may prescribe different kinds of eye drops for relief. Over-the-counter, lubricating eye drops can alleviate the dryness associated with surfer’s eye, while corticosteroid eye drops (those containing certain kinds of steroids) have anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe itchy, red, burning eyes.

    Surfer’s eye can be surgically treated when it affects the vision or causes severe discomfort, or if the patient chooses to undergo surgery for cosmetic reasons. Although the surgery is generally performed in an outpatient office with local anesthesia, many doctors will only perform it if other treatment options have failed, it’s significantly affecting your vision, or you’re very unhappy with the appearance.

    Like any surgery, there are certain risks and potential complications: Your pterygium can return as a larger, more aggressive growth; you may suffer from cuts or scarring on the cornea; and any damage to the cornea during surgery can result in blurred or reduced vision.

    Always talk to your doctor before using any kind of eye drops, eye ointments, or other treatments. If you’re considering surgery, be sure to discuss the pros and cons with your ophthalmologist.

    Prevention

    Fortunately, there are several simple steps you can take to protect your eyes and avoid developing surfer’s eye.

    • Always wear sunglasses: Choose sunglasses that block 90 to 100 percent of ultra-violet light and wear them every single day—even on cloudy, overcast days and when you’re in the car. Sunglasses can also provide protection from irritants, like sand, dust, or wind
    • Wear a hat with a wide brim: Baseball hats and sun hats can help shield your eyes from overhead sunlight
    • Use wetting eye drops: When you’re in very dry, windy, or dusty areas, use over-the-counter eye drops to keep your eyes properly lubricated

    A Word From Verywell

    Like any condition affecting the eye and vision, surfer’s eye can be a scary diagnosis. But it’s important to remember that this condition is completely non-cancerous and, in most cases, easy to treat. Keep your eyes safe from ultra-violet light and irritants, like wind or dust, by always wearing sunglasses or a hat when outdoors.

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