Pterygium affects from 2 percent to 15 percent of Americans, depending on location. Sunny areas have higher rates. This condition is a growth of tissue on the cornea of the eye, which may cause irritation, redness, swelling and itching of the eye. In advanced cases, pterygium can interfere with vision. It generally begins in young adults, ages 20 to 40. It may grow slowly throughout the person's life, or reach a certain size and then stop.
Risk factors include exposure to sunlight, family history and arsenic contamination of the drinking water. Men are more at risk than women, but this may be a result of more outdoor work and sun exposure for men. Sunglasses and hats are recommended in strong sunlight.
Many cases have no symptoms other than cosmetic disfigurement. Pterygium looks like a pink triangle intruding onto the surface of the cornea (see photo in Reference one). However, in a recent report from Australia, 9.8 percent of surgically removed pterygia specimens were associated with ocular surface squamous neoplasia (OSSN). The authors recommend that all specimens should be examined for pathology and patients with any stage of OSSN should be monitored more frequently by their eye doctors.
Reference three does not recommend surgery unless the pterygium interferes with vision. However, surgical techniques are improving. A fibrin adhesive has been shown to be a safe and effective option, reducing the average surgical time to 18 minutes. Post surgical symptoms include pain, tearing, discomfort, and a sensation that something is in the eye. These symptoms cleared up within one week for 64 percent of the patients in a Korean study, and within two weeks for all the participants.
A surgically removed pterygium may grow back, especially if the patient is younger than 40. An alternative treatment is lubricant eye drops to reduce the irritation. Steroid eye drops can also be used for inflammation.
1. Photo of Pterygium:
2. Prevalence of Pterygium:
3. Amy L. Sutton, ed, “Eye Care Sourcebook”, Omnigraphics, 2008.
4. Hirst LW et al, “Pterygium and associated ocular surface squamous neoplasia”, Arch Ophthalmol. 2009 Jan; 127(1): 31-2.
5. Lin W et al, “Associations between arsenic in drinking water and pterygium in southwestern Taiwan”, Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Jul; 116(7): 952-5.
6. Kim HH et al, “Conjunctivolimbal autograft using a fibrin adhesive in pterygium surgery”, Korean J Ophthalmol. 2008 Sep; 22(3): 147-54.
Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her background includes academic and industrial research in materials science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.