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Sun damage can cause 'surfer's eye'

All that sun can take a toll on a surfer's eyes.
All that sun can take a toll on a surfer's eyes.Buda Mendes/Stf / Getty Images Contributor

Some surfers may shred more than gnarly waves on their boards. Years and years of sun exposure from the sport might take its toll on their eyes.

Dubbed "surfer's eye," this condition results when sun damages the thin membrane covering the surface of the eye. The surfer gets a visible, triangular-shaped growth in the white part of the eye. In more advanced stages, the tip of the triangle actually touches the cornea.

The eye will look red and feel scratchy like something is in it, says Dr. Kathryn Colby, a cornea surgeon at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. The scientific name for surfer's eye is "pterygium" (pronounced tur-ij-ee-um), and Colby says it's a very common condition in the Caribbean or Mexico, places closer to the equator where the sun is much stronger.

Still, Colby sees her fair share of pterygium cases in Boston, even in people who never stepped foot on a board but have spent lots of time in the sun. People who like to fish, sail, water ski, canoe, kayak, or live in tropical climates are all potentially at risk if they tend to not wear sunglasses when outdoors. 

The problem comes from a combination of UV light exposure (from the sun and reflective glare of light off water), wind, and dust from sand that can make surfers' eyes more vulnerable, suggests Colby.

Plus, it's hard for surfers to shield their eyes from these elements while on their boards. Although protective eyewear for surfers is available, some choose not to wear it in the water because the glasses may fog up from ocean spray or fly off in a wipeout. 

In the earliest stages of surfer's eye, the condition is called pinguecula, and it doesn't involve the cornea, the eyeball's outermost portion that covers the pupil and iris. No treatment is needed other than using drops of artificial tears to relieve any discomfort and reducing UV light exposure.

Both pinguecula and pterygium are non-cancerous growths that can occur in one or both eyes. But if the triangular-shaped growth gets larger, becomes more irritating and blurs vision, it can be removed by surgery.

"Pterygium is an annoyance, but there are other more serious and vision-threatening problems that come from the sun," points out Colby. Having these benign growths does not cause a person to get cancer on the surface of the eye, she adds.

Her advice? To keep your eyes safe when outdoors, sunglasses are important both for children and adults.

And since surfers also spend a lot of time hanging out at the beach, they should slip on their UV-protective shades on the shore -- along with a hat.

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