Australia has one of the highest rates of pterygia (the plural of pterygium) in the world due to our sunny climate, outdoor lifestyle and high UV exposure. When they are small, pterygia may not cause any concern at all, however, as they enlarge they may cause redness, irritation, corneal scarring, reduced vision, irregular astigmatism, tearing and an unsightly appearance.
It usually presents in young patients over the age of 20 or 30 years although it has been known to occur during teenage years. This is not a cancer and is a localised disturbance on the surface of the eye. Usually a pterygium will remain stationary after a period of growth during which time it may extend 1, 2, 3 millimetres or more onto the cornea. Very occasionally it may grow further and cross the line of vision. In a small percentage of cases, a pterygium may grow on both eyes of the same individual. In very rare cases, an individual may have two pterygia on each eye.
If a pterygium is small and not causing problems then no treatment is required. However, a pterygium is damage that has been caused by the sun and as such, you should wear broad brimmed hats and good quality UV blocking wrap-around sunglasses. Ensure your sunglasses are purchased from your optometrist or reputable eyewear store and beware of cheap online websites as these inferior lenses may not meet Australian UV blocking standards, or even worse, may be counterfeit with no UV blocking qualities at all. During periods of cold or dry weather your pterygium may become red and inflamed – artificial tear drops will often relieve this irritation. Removal of a pterygium requires surgery, there is no laser treatment or eye drop that will remove it. An ophthalmologist who specialises in corneal diseases generally performs the surgery. With modern surgical techniques, you can expect an excellent cosmetic result. However, even with surgery, it is important to take sun protection precautions afterwards to reduce the risk of recurrence.
The Queensland Eye Institute has been undertaking epidemiologic research and conducting clinical trials on the management of pterygium for the last 15 years. We have answered some of the important questions with respect to the cause of this condition including the frequency of the condition in Queensland, together with results after various types of surgical removal.