The term surfer’s eye actually refers to two separate, but somewhat related, growths on your conjunctiva: a pterygium, which is a fleshy, skin-like growth, and a pinguecula, which is a yellowish deposit of calcium, fat, or protein on your conjunctiva.
They are both caused by UV light, dust, or wind exposure. They can both cause redness, irritation, and self-consciousness. Pingueculae do not require surgery except in very rare cases, while pterygia are often removed surgically when their appearance is disruptive or when they affect visual acuity.
Neither of these growths are dangerous, but they can recur if you do not take steps to protect your eyes.
What Is Surfer’s Eye?
These growths occur because of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light on a regular basis. They may also be caused by exposure to wind, sand, or particles that get in your eyes.
While the phrase surfer’s eye covers two conditions, there are separate names for these growths. They can occur in the same eye, in either eye, or in one at a time. They require similar management of symptoms. Once these growths are removed, you should take similar steps to prevent them from occurring again, such as wearing sunglasses with UV protection.
For pterygium, a skin-like growth, your eye doctor may recommend surgery. For pinguecula, a yellowish, triangular growth, surgery is rarely recommended.
Pterygium vs. Pinguecula: What Are They, How Are They Different & How Are They Related?
There are several differences between a pterygium and a pinguecula. Both of these conditions are triggered by too much UV light, a dry environment, or exposure to dust or dirt. They are both growths on the conjunctiva.
Both pterygia and pingueculae occur in people who are between 30 and 50 years old, with rare occurrences in younger or older adults. However, they have different appearances, symptoms, and treatment plans.
- Pterygium: This is a growth that typically starts in the inner corner of the eye and moves toward your iris. It may look fleshy, like skin, and it will have blood vessels.
The wedge of flesh will not affect your vision too much, so your eye doctor may not recommend surgery immediately. However, it may grow quickly and spread to your cornea, at which point your eye doctor may recommend that the pterygium is removed. You can also have it surgically removed if it looks startling, or if your eye is itchy or watery in a way that eye drops cannot control.
A pterygium may start as a pinguecula, or it may begin on its own. Until it reaches a certain size that covers your vision or causes problems with your corneal shape, a pterygium is benign.
Steroid eye drops or lubricating eye drops can manage the more annoying symptoms, which include the following:
- Feeling like something is stuck in your eye
- General discomfort
- Pinguecula: While this condition also looks unsightly and occurs on the conjunctiva, a pinguecula looks different from a pterygium. A pinguecula is a yellowish, raised bump on the surface of your eye that is a deposit of calcium, fat, or protein.
With ongoing UV exposure, a pinguecula may become a pterygium. It could also continue to grow, and symptoms associated with it could get worse.
Like a pterygium, it is benign until it begins to impact your vision. It is rare for these to become big enough to cause vision problems, so your eye doctor may simply prescribe eye drops to manage the symptoms. Surgery is rarely the solution to pinguecula.
You may experience these symptoms from developing a pinguecula:
- Irritated eyes
- Itching or feeling gritty
- Dry eyes
Surgery for a pinguecula is considered if your symptoms are severe and cannot be managed with eye drops. Surgery is also sometimes recommended if the pinguecula grows, turns into a pterygium, and begins to move over the cornea.
Is Either Type of Surfer’s Eye Dangerous?
Neither pingueculae nor pterygia are dangerous, although pterygia can begin to change the shape of your cornea and lead to astigmatism. At this point, your eye doctor will recommend that the pterygium is removed to preserve your vision.
To treat both, the first line of defense is lubricating eye drops. Then, it’s possible that steroid eye drops may be prescribed to slow their growth.
Surgery for either a pterygium or a pinguecula typically occurs because it is unsightly and unwanted, not because of medical problems from the growth. The surgery to remove either issue typically takes about 30 minutes. You may then wear an eye patch for protection for a day or two, especially while you sleep.
Once you have the growth removed, it is important to make lifestyle changes to reduce the risk that a pterygium or pinguecula will recur. After your first one, you are at a higher risk of developing another. Some studies report that recurrence rates are as high as 40 percent, while other medical surveys found that recurrence rates hover around 5 percent.
The only way to manage recurrence is by protecting your eyes from UV light, treating dry eye problems, and keeping your eyes free from dirt, if possible. People who work outdoors should be especially aware that these changes are necessary.
- Unfiltered outdoor light
You will need to wear protective eyewear, including goggles or glasses with a special UV light filter. Avoiding and limiting these environmental issues is the only way to prevent a pterygium or pinguecula from growing back, or to prevent an existing one from getting larger quickly.
If you do not have a pterygium or pinguecula, you can prevent this issue from occurring by protecting your eyes from sun, wind, and particles. This is especially important if you have to be exposed to these environmental issues on a regular basis, either because of where you live or your job.
What Is a Pinguecula and a Pterygium (Surfer’s Eye)? (August 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
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Pinguecula and Pterygium (Surfer’s Eye) Treatment. (August 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Pterygium: Prevention. (November 2017). Healthline.