A pterygium is a fleshy growth on the surface of the eye. It begins on the white part of the eyeball and can grow across onto the cornea, towards the pupil. It is a benign growth, not a cancer.


The prominent blood vessels within a pterygium can make the eye appear red and bloodshot. Sometimes the pterygium can become inflamed and irritated, and the eye may feel gritty and uncomfortable.




Exposure to sunlight is the main risk factor for developing a pterygium as they are most commonly seen in people who spend a lot of time outdoors. Protecting your eyes from the sun with sunglasses and a hat is the best way to avoid getting a pterygium.


If a pterygium becomes very large, it can grow far enough onto the central cornea to affect your vision, by warping the shape of the cornea (astigmatism) or by directly obscuring the pupil.


If a pterygium is small and not causing any symptoms, it can be safely left alone, as long as measures are taken to protect the eye from further sun exposure to prevent it from growing any larger. Mild irritation and redness of the eye can usually be relieved by the use of simple lubricating eye drops (artificial tears).


In some cases, however, a pterygium will need to be surgically removed. The main indications for surgery are as follows:

  1. If the pterygium is affecting, or threatening to affect your vision.
  2. If the pterygium is causing recurrent irritation and discomfort.
  3. For cosmetic reasons, if the pterygium is unsightly and bloodshot.


Surgical excision of a pterygium is performed as a day-only procedure, under twilight sedation, where a person is sedated but not unconscious, and local anaesthetic. Our surgeons perform this operation at the National Day Surgery, Kogarah. The surgery itself is painless, but afterwards, you will need a few days off work to recover, as the eye will feel gritty for the first few days following the procedure.


Another eye condition that is very similar and sometimes confused with pterygium, is a pingueculum. A pingueculum is also a benign growth on the surface of the eyeball, related to excessive sun exposure. It usually has a more yellowish appearance, but can also become inflamed at times and cause the same irritation and redness as a pterygium. Unlike a pterygium, however, a pingueculum will not grow across onto the cornea and therefore, it is not a threat to your vision. Management of a pingueculum includes sun protection and lubricant eye drops when needed. Surgical excision is very rarely necessary.


Illustrations shown are provided courtesy of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) and Mi-Tec Publishing. The complete RANZCO patient education pamphlet is available from your ophthalmologist