A pterygium is an abnormal, non-cancerous growth of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is the thin mucous membrane that covers the white part of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelids. A pterygium appears as an elevated triangular whitish thickening that is caused by excessive growth of the conjunctiva and extends on to the surface of the eye. If the pterygium grows large enough, it can interfere with vision and cause redness, irritation, and tearing.

While the exact cause is still unknown, a pterygium is thought to be caused by exposure to UV rays. It is often irritated in dry, low humidity conditions. Although Atlanta has a comparatively high level of humidity to many other parts of the country, pterygium growth is still found in people who have outdoor occupations and are exposed to sunlight, sand, and wind. Similarly, if you suffer from a dry eye condition, you might also be at risk of developing this thickening of the conjunctiva.

What is this Condition?

A pterygium is a noncancerous growth that usually grows on the surface of the eye. It is usually slightly raised from the surface with blood vessels that may be visible. The exact cause of the development of the lesions are not precisely known, but experts believe that exposure to ultraviolet light, eye dryness and irritants such as dust and wind may be factors. It generally affects those between the ages of 20 and 40. More men develop the condition than women.

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What are the Symptoms?

Individuals with a pterygium can occasionally have no symptoms at all. These individuals can simply be observed but are advised to protect themselves from UV light with polarized sunglasses. However, it can be visible and make the person feel self-conscious.

Symptoms can include:

  • Redness
  • Foreign body sensation
  • Irritation
  • Itching
  • Blurred vision

Blurred vision usually occurs due to distortion of the cornea’s shape or when the lesion grows onto the cornea, the outer layer of the eye. The physician examines the eye with a microscope called a slit lamp to diagnose the condition.

What is the Treatment?

You may not require treatment for the lesion if it causes no symptoms. Simply using drops for dry eyes or eye drops that contain steroid medications may be sufficient to relieve any inflammation that occurs. If the lesion begins to grow over the iris of the eye, surgery may be necessary to restore full vision.

Excision Surgery

A pterygium excision surgery may become necessary if drops or ointments are unable to relieve your condition or if the pterygium grows large enough to blur your vision. Surgery requires that the lesion be removed from the surface of the eye. Then, a small piece of skin is taken from beneath the eyelid to cover the hole in the conjunctiva. This small graft of skin helps to prevent regrowth of the lesion.

During the recovery period, patients may experience mild irritation, blurred vision, and redness around the eye. However, patients can return to normal activities, such as driving, work, and school, within the first few days. Full recovery can take several weeks to about one month. Patients are also instructed to use antibiotic and steroid drops for the first 1-2 months to prevent infection, reduce inflammation, and reduce the risk of recurrence.

Complications, such as infection, are rare but patients should be aware of the risk of recurrence. The risk of a recurring pterygium can be as high as 50% without the use of a conjunctival autograft or amniotic membrane. With the use of either tissue after pterygium excision, the risk is reduced to about 5-10%. Recurrent pterygia are treated with similar surgical intervention.

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