Though it’s named for a certain type of athlete, this common complaint can affect anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors. The main symptom of surfer's eye, or pterygium, is a growth of pink, fleshy tissue on the conjunctiva, the clear tissue that lines your eyelids and covers your eyeball. It usually forms on the side closest to your nose and grows toward the pupil area.

It can look scary, but it isn’t cancer. The growth might spread slowly during your life or stop after a certain point. In extreme cases, it can cover your pupil and cause vision problems. The growth could show up in one eye or both. When it affects both, it’s known as a bilateral pterygium.

Though it isn’t usually a serious condition, it can cause annoying symptoms. You might feel like you have something in your eye. Or it may get red and irritated and require medical or surgical treatment. You might also feel self-conscious because people may ask you about your eye being red all the time.


The exact cause of pterygium isn’t known. One explanation is that too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light can lead to these growths. It occurs more often in people who live in warm climates and spend a lot of time outdoors in sunny or windy environments. People whose eyes are exposed to certain elements on a regular basis have a higher risk of developing this condition. These elements include:

  • pollen
  • sand
  • smoke
  • wind



Sometimes you’ll have no symptoms before pterygium appears. When symptoms do develop, they range from mild to severe.

  • Early signs and symptoms include:
  • A slightly raised pink growth on your eye.
  • Red, irritated or swollen eyes.
  • Dry eyes, itchy eyes or burning eyes.
  • Feeling like you have sand or grit is in your eye.
  • Teary eyes.
  • Late signs and symptoms include:
  • Increase in the size and spread of the lesion.
  • An unpleasant appearance of your eye due to the size of the lesion.
  • Blurred vision or double vision (if pterygium grows onto your cornea).


Diagnosing a pterygium is straightforward. Your eye doctor may diagnose this condition based on a physical examination using a slit lamp. This lamp allows your doctor to see your eye with the help of magnification and bright lighting. If your doctor needs to do additional tests, they may include:

Visual acuity test: This test involves reading letters on an eye chart.

Corneal topography: This medical mapping technique is used to measure curvature changes in your cornea.

Photo documentation: This procedure involves taking pictures to track the growth rate of the pterygium.

Inactive: Evaluate based on residuals, such as visual impairment and disfigurement (diagnostic code 7800).

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