A pterygium (tuh-RIJ-ee-uhm) is an elevated, wedged-shaped bump on the eyeball that starts on the white of the eye (sclera) and can invade the cornea. If you have more than one of these eye growths, the plural form of the word is pterygia (tuh-RIJ-ee-ah).
Though it’s commonly called “surfer’s eye,” you don’t have to be a surfer or ever see the ocean to get a pterygium. But being in bright sunlight for long hours — especially when you are on water, which reflects the sun’s harmful UV rays — increases your risk. Pterygia are benign (non-cancerous) growths, but they can permanently disfigure the eye. They also can cause discomfort and blurry vision.
Although ultraviolet radiation from the sun appears to be the primary cause for the development and growth of pterygia, dust and wind are sometimes implicated too, as is dry eye disease.
Pterygia usually develop in 30- to 50-year-olds, and these bumps on the eyeball rarely are seen in children. Having light skin and light eyes may put you at increased risk of getting a pterygium.
Pterygia usually occur on the side of the eye closer to the nose, but they can also develop on the side closer to the ear as well and can affect one eye or both eyes.
Many people with mild surfer’s eye may not experience symptoms or require treatment. But large or growing pterygia often cause a gritty, itchy or burning sensation or the feeling something is “in” the eye (called a foreign body sensation). Also, these pterygia often become inflamed, causing unattractive red eyes.
If a pterygium significantly invades the cornea, it can distort the shape of the front surface of the eye, causing astigmatism and higher-order aberrations that affect vision.