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Pterygium: What is this growth on the eye?

  1. Causes
  2. Signs and Symptoms
  3. Treatment
Pterygium illustration

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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).

Being in bright sunlight for long hours — especially when you are on water, which reflects the sun's harmful UV rays — increases your risk of getting this condition.

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.

Signs And Symptoms

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 pterygia 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.

Sometimes people confuse pterygia with eye growths called pingueculae, but they are different. Learn more about what a pinguecula is.

Pterygium Treatment

Treatment of pterygia depends on the size of the pterygium, whether it is growing and the symptoms it causes. Regardless of severity, pterygia should be monitored to prevent scarring that could lead to vision loss.

If a pterygium is small, your optometrist may prescribe lubricants or a mild eye drop to temporarily reduce swelling and redness.

Even when there is no effect on vision, some people are bothered by the cosmetic appearance.  Surgery may be warranted for both visual and cosmetic reasons.

If pterygium surgery is required, several surgical techniques are available -an ophthalmologist who performs the procedure will determine the best technique for your specific needs.

Surgery for pterygium removal usually lasts no longer than 30 minutes, after which you likely will need to wear an eye patch for protection for a day or two. You should be able to return to work or normal activities the next day.


Thankfully pterygia does not frequently return after surgical removal, in the small number where it does it's possibly due to oxidative stress and/or continued UV exposure.

Exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun is a suspected cause of pterygia; wrap sunglasses will protect your eyes from all angles. These Zyon sailing sunglasses by Rudy Project come with removable side wings for even more eye protection.

Some International studies show recurrence rates up to 40 percent, while others have reported recurrence rates as low as 5 percent (a more common recurrence rate within UK). Some research even shows higher rates of recurrence in those who have pterygia removed during the summer months, potentially because of their increased exposure to sunlight.

To prevent regrowth after a pterygium is surgically removed, your eye surgeon may suture or glue a piece of surface eye tissue onto the affected area. This method, called autologous conjunctival autografting, has been shown to safely and effectively reduce the risk of pterygium recurrence.

A drug that can help limit abnormal tissue growth and scarring during wound healing, such as mitomycin C, also may be applied topically at the time of surgery and/or afterward to reduce the risk of pterygium recurrence.

After removal of the pterygium, the doctor will likely prescribe steroid eye drops for several weeks to decrease swelling and prevent regrowth. In addition to using your drops, it's very important to protect your eyes from the sun with UV-blocking sunglasses or photochromic lenses after surgery, since exposure to ultraviolet radiation may be a key factor in pterygium recurrence.

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