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dont let surfers eye pterygium take you under

Our pediatric patients and their families are ready for school to be out here in Atlanta, and we’re thrilled that summertime is upon us. As with any season, summer poses its own set of risks. As you know, sun protection is always a top priority this time of year. However, if you’re a bonafide water baby, protecting your eyes from overexposure to UV rays is especially important.

If your eyes are sunburned too often, you’re at risk of developing “Surfer’s Eye” (pterygium), as are those that spend a good deal of time in windy or dusty conditions.

Surfer’s Eye (Pterygium)

Pterygium is a growth on the conjunctiva or the white portion of the eyeball. In most cases, your eye will develop a growth called a pinguecula.

It usually starts with a pinguecula

A pinguecula is a raised, yellowish growth that typically develops in the inner side of the conjunctiva, towards the bridge of your nose. However, in some cases, patients develop a pinguecula on the outer edge of their conjunctiva. The growth is caused by excess protein, calcium, or fat deposits. A pinguecula never spreads into the cornea, doesn’t affect vision (outside of the irritation it causes), and doesn’t develop its own blood supply.

Pterygium is more severe

Over time a pinguecula becomes more permanent and morphs into a pterygium. These masses continue to grow, affecting the cornea, and can even develop their own blood supply, which will fill with blood vessels. Once a pterygium grows large enough to cover the cornea, it compromises vision.

Risk Factors For Developing Pterygium

In addition to overexposure to the sun, patients who develop pterygium often experience excessive exposure to dust and wind. So, as you can imagine, people who work outdoors or enjoy being out in nature are at the highest risk of developing pterygium. Since surfers are on the water (sunlight multiplied via reflection off the water – similar to eye risks associated with snowblindness) and most beaches are windy and sandy, those who surf have some of the highest rates of pterygium – hence the name “surfer’s eye.”

Symptoms Of Surfer’s Eye

The symptoms of surfer’s eye are:

  • Red irritated or swollen eyes, especially after being outside for extended periods of time, day after day, and without proper eye protection.
  • Swelling in the conjunctiva. This is also a common eye infection symptom or a sign of eye allergies. It may feel like something is in your eye but you’ll see a small bump or an area of swelling. If it doesn’t resolve within a week or so, or eye drops don’t bring relief, schedule an eye appointment with your doctor.
  • A yellow spot or bump on the white of your eye.
  • Dry, itchy, or burning eyes.
  • Feeling like you have sand or grit in your eyes.
  • Blurry vision.

Again, most of these symptoms mimic the symptoms of allergies or eye infections, but they won’t resolve. When in doubt, contact your eye doctor and tell them what’s going on. We’ll determine whether or not you should come in for an appointment.

Treatment For Pterygium

The first step to getting an accurate diagnosis of surfer’s eye is to schedule an eye exam with your optometrist. There, we’ll perform an exam specifically geared to diagnose the source of your eye irritation and discomfort. 

First, your eye doctor uses a special microscope, called a slit lamp. A bright “slit” of light is focused on the eye and the magnifying lens allows them to get a close look at the area. We get a close look at the inside and outside of the eye through the slit lamp, which is used in every routine eye exam. Next, we’ll check your vision, and we also may use a tool called corneal topography, which uses a specialized camera to capture a 3D image of your cornea. This helps us to see if the condition has spread into the cornea.

Once we’ve performed your exam, we’ll know whether or not you have a surfer’s eye and proceed with the best treatment method. 

  • No treatment. If symptoms are not causing you issues or haven’t affected your cornea or vision, we typically recommend leaving it alone and using proper eye protection from here on out. This may include a prescription for safety glasses you can use when working outdoors.
  • Eye drops. Regular over-the-counter may be recommended to soothe redness and irritation and reduce swelling.
  • Steroidal eye drops or ointments. If swelling is severe, we’ll prescribe steroidal eye drops to reduce it, which typically do the trick to reduce the itchy or grainy feeling.
  • Surgery. If your pterygium is so large that it covers the cornea, changes your eye shape, or compromises vision, we can use surgical procedures to remove it. Some people opt to have eye surgery because they don’t like the way surfer’s eye looks.

If you move forward with surgery, there are several different options. First, your eye doctor will refer you to an ophthalmologist for a consultation. There, you can learn more about which surgery makes the most sense. In some cases, we simply remove the growth and let the eye heal in some cases. Other surgeries are more complex, especially if the pterygium has moved into the cornea or changed the shape of the cornea (causing astigmatism), in which case we may do corneal grafting. 

After the surgery, the opthalmologist may prescribe mitomycin C or 5-fluorouracil to prevent surfer’s eye from coming back. However, it’s also essential that you use proper protection when outside in sunny, dusty, or windy conditions.

Atlantic Eye Institute Treats Surfer’s Eye

Atlantic Eye Insititute has an amazing team of optometrists and ophthalmologists. Contact us to schedule an appointment and catch surfer’s eye before it spreads. Your vision is essential, and we’re here to help you preserve it. 

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