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Pterygium (Surfer’s Eye) Causes | Risk Factors to Understand

Pterygium is a growth on the eye. It is pink, fleshy tissue affecting the conjunctiva, which is the clear tissue that lines the eyelids, covering the eyeball. 

While it is also known as surfer’s eye, this condition can affect any individual who spends a considerable amount of time outdoors and in sunny, windy, or dusty conditions.

What Are the Main Causes of Pterygium? 

Pterygium gets its nickname (surfer’s eye) due to the fact that this condition arises from circumstances that surfers often expose themselves to. Surfers tend to be in the same conditions and elements that cause pterygium, which include sunny, windy, and dusty conditions. 

Individuals with surfer’s eye often live near the equator. Men between the ages of 20 and 40 are believed to be more susceptible to this eye condition, but it can affect anyone living in sunny, windy, and dusty conditions.

Lots of time in the sun without eye protection will often cause the eyes to feel dry. In extreme cases, it might even feel like you have something gritty in the eye. Redness can occur, and pterygium can also arise.

These are some of the main triggers for the condition:

Exposure to Ultraviolet Light

UV radiation can lead to the alteration of limbal stem cells, and this can pave the way to pterygium. Pterygium cells that express high levels of inflammatory cytokines, growth factors, and MMPs can lead to inflammation. Fibrogenesis and vascularization can cause pterygium invasion. 

Those who live in sunny conditions should make it a point to wear eye protection outdoors.

Dusty Conditions

Being in dry and dusty climates can cause pterygium. Dust and other particles can get into the eye, causing a variety of eye and vision problems. 

Airborne debris is often hard to see. We only know about it when our eyes and vision become affected. Debris such as this can impact the cornea of the eye and even cause ocular itching, blurred vision, and pterygium. Dust particles can also cause corneal abrasion, leading to eye injury. 

Excessive Wind

Long-term exposure in dry and windy climates and areas (often found at beaches) is also believed to contribute to the development of surfer’s eye. Excessive wind causes damage to our eyes, which arises from air moving across the surface of the eye. This can cause tears to evaporate faster, leading to eye dryness. 

There is believed to be a correlation between surfer’s eye and dry eye.

Identifying & Diagnosing Pterygium

Pterygium most often forms on the side of the eye that is located closest to the nose, growing in the direction of the pupil.

Many individuals mistake pterygium for a cancerous growth. However, pterygium is not cancer and generally only results in discomfort. 

The growth itself can cause an individual to become self-conscious as it can be unsightly. It can either spread slowly or remain the same size when it reaches a certain mass. 

In aggravated cases, the growth itself can cover the eye and cause vision problems, and this often requires medical attention. 

Pterygium can affect one or both eyes. When pterygium affects both eyes, it is called bilateral pterygium

What Are the Risk Factors of Pterygium?

As mentioned above, men of a certain age are perhaps more susceptible to getting pterygium. Where you live and your age will also affect the likelihood that you will develop the condition.  The risk of pterygium tends to increase as we advance in age. 

Additional risk factors include the following:

  • Exposure to any form of ultraviolet light exposure 
  • Living in sunny climates that are close to the equator
  • Staying in dry, dusty climates for long periods of time
  • Living an outdoor lifestyle 

Those who work outdoors are believed to have an exponentially higher risk of developing pterygium. 

Can You Prevent Pterygium?

You can reduce your chances of getting pterygium by avoiding sunny, dry, windy, and dusty conditions. If you spend a lot of time at the beach or in an area with these sorts of conditions, you can wear eye protection. The best kind of eye protection for reducing your chances of getting pterygium is wraparound sunglasses.

If opting for sunglasses, make sure that you select a pair that offers 100% UV protection. 

Additional steps to protect your eyes include the following:

Head & Eye Covering

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat that provides shade to your face will also help you limit UV exposure, which will reduce your chances of getting pterygium. 

Eye Drops or Artificial Tears

Artificial tears can be a preventative measure against surfer’s eye. Keeping your eyes moist will prevent dryness, which leads to irritation. 

Limiting Sun, Dust & Wind Exposure

When working outdoors or spending long periods of time in the sun, taking regular breaks and hitting the shade will help avoid pterygium development. If it is particularly windy or dusty, head indoors.

Seeking Medical Attention for Pterygium

Medical treatment for pterygium is a bit tricky. Most often, your eye doctor will monitor the condition over time, ensuring that it doesn’t expand over your visual axis. Management of pterygium symptoms is generally recommended over surgery. 

Over-the-counter treatments include the following:

  • Anti-allergy drops
  • Lubricating eye drops
  • Artificial tears
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Ointments

Surgical removal of pterygia is usually explored as a last measure. Most eye care professionals agree that surgical removal comes with risks that are not necessarily outweighed by the benefits. The efficacy and safety of surgery for pterygium remain uncertain, even after 20 years of research and data. 

Modern surgical approaches are only used if vision is compromised. There is a chance that a more aggressive growth can occur after removing the initial pterygium. 


Pterygium. (February 2023). StatPearls

Correlation Between Pterygium and Dry Eye. (September 2019). Kerala Journal of Ophthalmology. 

Risk Factors for Pterygium in Ilam Province, Iran. (July 2017). Journal of Ophthalmic & Vision Research. 

Pterygium: An Update on Pathophysiology, Clinical Features, and Management. (May 2021). Therapeutic Advances in Ophthalmology

Evaluating the Efficacy and Safety of Different Pterygium Surgeries: A Review of the Literature. (September 2022). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

How to Minimize Pterygium Recurrence Rates: Clinical Perspectives. (November 2019). Clinical Ophthalmology.

Evaluating the Efficacy and Safety of Different Pterygium Surgeries: A Review of the Literature. (September 2022). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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