Many people living in countries with a harsh dry climate, such as South Africa, develop a thin film on the white of the eyes, which grows from the nasal side towards the centre of the eye. This is called a pterygium and is sometimes referred to as "surfers' eye" because it is common amongst people who spend a lot of time outdoors exposed to sun and wind. It usually appears during adolescence or early adulthood, grows slowly over time and generally does not cause concerns or require treatment unless it interferes with vision. 


The main sign of pterygium is the growth of pink fleshy tissue on the clear membrane on the white of the eye, either in one eye or both. Sometimes there are no symptoms, but when there are, they typically tend to be mild. Common symptoms include indications of eye irritation, such as redness, itching, burning and a feeling of something in the eye. If it grows large enough to cover the cornea it can interfere with vision. In some cases, wearing contact lenses may be uncomfortable. Pterygium tends to go through phases of active growth, when it is more inflamed and annoying, and quieter phases of inactivity. It usually becomes inactive after a few years of growth. 


The exact cause of pterygium is not known, but it tends to occur most often in people who live in warm dry climates and spend extended periods of time outdoors in sunny windy environments. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light is thought to be a contributing factor which may lead to these growths. Other risk factors include exposure to irritants such as dust, smoke and pollen. 


Your optometrist may diagnose pterygium using a slit lamp, which helps in the examination of the eye with bright lighting and magnification. Additional tests may include a visual acuity test, corneal topography which measures curvature changes in the cornea, and photo documentation which helps to track the growth of the pterygium over time. 


Unless the pterygium is interfering with vision or causing severe discomfort, treatment is seldom required. If treatment is indicated it is usually to relieve the symptoms of redness and irritation. Eye drops or ointments may be prescribed to reduce the inflammation, and antihistamine medication can relieve the itching. Surgery may be recommended if there is a problem with vision, if the symptomatic treatments are unsuccessful, or for cosmetic reasons. Although surgical removal is the only "cure" for pterygium, it can grow back. 


To a large extent, the development of pterygium may be prevented or at least slowed down by wearing sunglasses every day whether the weather is sunny or overcast, and by limiting exposure to harsh environmental elements such as wind, dust and smoke. Choose sunglasses that block 99%-100% of both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. Wraparound styles provide the best shield against ultraviolet light, dust, and wind. Wear them when you're in the car, too. For added protection wear a hat with a brim. Using artificial tears to keep the eyes moist in a dry climate helps reduce irritation and the feeling of grittiness in the eyes.

Consult your optometrist if the symptoms of pterygium 
create discomfort and interfere with your vision.