Example of a patient with a pterygium on their eye.

A pterygium is a pink, fleshy, wedged-shaped growth of tissue on the whites of the eye that encroaches onto the cornea. It typically occurs on the side of the cornea closest to the nose. In most cases, the condition is stable and can be left untreated if it is not causing you any problems.

What is the cause of pterygium?

Pterygiums are cause by long-term exposure to UV light and dry and windy conditions. For this reason, it is more commonly seen in people living in sunny climates or near the equator. It also occurs more frequently in males than in females.

What are the symptoms of pterygium?

If you have a pterygium, you will probably notice a pinkish-white wedge-shape growth on your eye. If small, this may not cause you any symptoms or discomfort. Some people however, may experience grittiness, irritation, itching, burning, redness, discomfort or a constant feeling of having something in the eye. A pterygium can occasionally get inflamed, in which case you may experience pain and increased redness. If the pterygium is progressive and enlarging in size, you may experience blurred or distorted vision as a large enough pterygium can alter the shape of the cornea and cause irregular astigmatism.

How is pterygium treated?

If you have a small, stable pterygium that is not bothering you, you may choose to leave it untreated. In order to reduce the risk of further growth, it is advisable to use regular lubricating eye drops and protect the eyes from UV rays with a good pair of protective sunglasses. It is also important to have your condition monitored by your eye health care practitioner for signs of growth as it may grow and affect your vision in the future.

If your pterygium becomes inflamed and painful, you may be prescribed a short course of steroid or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drops to reduce the inflammation.

Surgery is recommended if:

  • It affects your vision
  • It causes grittiness, pain, irritation, redness and discomfort
  • The appearance bothers you
  • Your pterygium is progressively enlarging, as it can eventually interfere with your vision and cause scarring.

A pterygium causing significant astigmatism will also require removal prior to cataract surgery.

Pterygium surgery

Surgery involves removing the pterygium and harvesting a small piece of normal conjunctiva from under the eyelid. This graft tissue is then glued over the gap where the pterygium was. This technique, known as conjunctival autografting, reduces the chances of recurrence of the pterygium to less than 10%.