Why Is Pterygium Called Surfer’s Eye?

Closeup of a patient's eye with a pterygium

If you spend a lot of time outdoors or on the water, you may have heard the term “surfer’s eye.” This actually refers to a condition known as pterygium, a noncancerous growth that can cause irritation and blurred vision. Despite its nickname, pterygium does not only affect surfers or those who spend a lot of time in the ocean. The main culprit is actually the sun. Exposing your eyes to significant amounts of UV light from the sun puts you at high risk for developing a growth (light reflected from the ocean is what sparked the “surfer’s eye” moniker)

More people than just surfers are at risk of developing this impairment, so let’s take a closer look at what pterygium entails.


Often shaped like a wedge, a pterygium is a growth of a mucous membrane that covers the white part of your eye (sclera) over the cornea. While it isn’t life-threatening, it can cause irritating side effects.

Symptoms include:

  • Redness and irritation
  • Dryness or a gritty feeling like something is in your eye
  • Blurred vision
  • A noticeable growth that affects sight

If left untreated, pterygium can spread across the rest of your cornea, so it’s important to have it looked at by a professional early on.

Treatment Options

Given its appearance of a wedge-shaped bump, a pterygium is fairly straightforward to diagnose. An eye doctor will be able to determine its presence with a simple examination under bright lighting.

If the pterygium isn’t affecting your vision or creating discomfort, it can be left untreated. However, if it is having those effects, you have a couple of treatment options. Over-the-counter eyedrops can help reduce inflammation and reduce redness. In more extreme cases, steroid eyedrops may be prescribed to treat irritation.

Surgery is also an option if the eye drops are inadequate or vision becomes more impaired. The procedure, which shouldn’t cause any pain, removes the pterygium from the cornea and sclera of the eye. It is then covered with a small tissue graft to aid in healing.

Not Just for Surfers – How To Decrease Your Risk

While common in surfers due to the high exposure to UV light, this condition can also be caused by regular contact with harsh elements like sand, smoke, wind, pollen, or chemicals. As a result, people who live or work in warm, sunny environments — such as farmers, landscapers, and construction workers — are most likely to experience symptoms. Thankfully, it is rarely seen in children.

The good news is that there are several ways to protect yourself from pterygium, even if your job or lifestyle requires significant time outdoors. Try these preventative steps:

  • Don’t trust any old sunglasses. Make sure you are wearing a pair with proper UVA/UVB protection to limit the sun’s impact.
  • Protective eyewear such as goggles or a face shield can help keep dust and other irritants at bay.
  • Wear a wide-brim hat for extra protection, especially when on the water.

And remember, if you are ever concerned about a possible pterygium growth on your eye or your risk for developing one, Visionary Eye Doctors is here to help. Book an appointment online to consult with one of our expert technicians.