surfer's eye
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Surf Eyes: Why Does It Happen and How Can It Be Treated?

Surfing bears some health risks as well, and surfer’s eye is one of them. Learn what it is, why it happens, and how it’s treated.

Sure, sandy beaches are beautiful, the sun is lovely, and the ocean is magnificent. So, you're telling me that some people sustain themselves by riding waves under the sun and chilling out on the beach afterward? And they are called surfers, huh? Well, what's there not to envy about that life? Right?

Well, surf eyes, or what's generally referred to as "surfer's eye disease" and officially known as pterygium, is one of the elements that you cannot envy about a surfer's lifestyle. See, all those times when you're directly exposed to ultraviolet sun rays, when you need to ride while the glare on the ocean is testing you, and when the salt of the water, the bacteria in the wind, or the bits of sand find their way into your eyes, your health takes a toll.

Yes, there are certain useful accessories designed to relieve that toll by protecting your eyes, like surf hats, but we're talking about a lifetime of exposure. That UV exposure inevitably leads to problems that require you to seek professional medical advice no matter the precautions you take for eye protection.

In this article, we're going to explain what a surfer's eye is, its main symptoms, how it can be treated, and what you can do to prevent it.

What Is Surfer's Eye?

Don't let the name mislead you since anyone who spends too much time outdoors can develop surfer's eye, not just surfers. Long-term exposure to UV radiation or the reflection of UV rays on the surface of the ocean causes particular pink tissue growths. They have their own blood vessels and appear on the clear tissue that covers the surface of the eye and the inner layer of the eyelid. This fleshy tissue mostly starts forming in the corner of your eyes and then grows toward the pupil, causing vision problems such as blurry or double vision.

Besides blurry vision, there are other symptoms such as eye redness, itchiness, grittiness, feeling a burning sensation in your eyes, or feeling like there's a foreign object there. These symptoms emerge before the scar tissue is fully formed. However, there are also times when it just appears out of nowhere.

People who first encounter such a problem are understandably afraid because it has all the makings of a tumor on the surface, but let us relieve you by telling you that it's non-cancerous and it's not actually a serious disease. However, it's quite irritating, and if your profession requires you to strain your eyes in the sun (like in surfing), that irritation will be multiplied and the scar tissue formation will eventually disfigure your eyes unless you seek medical advice from an eye doctor.

Moreover, if it goes untreated, the tissue might cover the cornea, causing other eye conditions such as astigmatism. Therefore, consulting an eye doctor as soon as possible once it appears is crucial to prevent further problems.

What Causes Surfer's Eye?

Medical research indicates that those who live in sunny climates (especially near the axis of the equator under higher UV light exposure), have to spend too much time outdoors, and are between the ages of 20 and 40 are more likely to suffer from surfer's eye. 

That being said, there's no pinpoint diagnosis for the exact cause of the disease. As is the case with most diseases, our genetics are sometimes indicated as the main culprit. Some lay blame on human papillomavirus (HPV) infections as well. Exposure to wind, pollen, smoke, or sand is also a factor that might lead to pterygium.

How Is It Treated?

There are a couple of methods used in the treatment of surfer's eye depending on the size of the tissue and the speed of its growth. Generally, the seriousness of the condition is determined using a special microscope called a slit lamp.

If it isn't deemed serious enough to warrant surgery, your doctor will probably just prescribe steroid eye drops or lubricating eye drops, which temporarily alleviate the symptoms and reduce your eye's dryness and swelling.

In addition, you might have to wear contact lenses to cover the problematic tissue and protect your eyes from more exposure to ultraviolet light and further damage.

Still, we're talking about the presence of fleshy tissue on the surface of your eye. It might not be serious, its progress might be halted by steroid eye drops, and you can wear sunglasses or an eye patch when socializing just so people around you don't see it, but no matter the temporary solutions, you might feel self-conscious about it due to cosmetic reasons.

There's actually only one way it can be removed and it's what's applied to extreme cases as well: surgical removal. Pterygium surgery is a relatively straightforward one, and it generally only lasts for half an hour. However, you must discuss it with your eye surgeon to learn what the risks of pterygium removal are.

Pterygium Recurrence

Pterygium recurrence is one of the risks of the surgery. Once it's surgically removed, it doesn't mean that the problem is completely gone. On the contrary, in most cases, surfer's eye can come back even more severely than before.

Especially those who undergo surgery during the summer months have been observed to suffer from a recurrence. No matter how you protect your eyes and the affected area after surgery, the ultraviolet rays find a way inside and cause more damage.

To avoid such an outcome, there are some methods employed by eye surgeons. One of these is suturing a piece of protective tissue on the surface of the eye. The other method is prescribing a medication called mitomycin C that prevents scar tissue formation. There is also the possibility that you'll continue using steroid eye drops for a while just to be sure.

Still, these preemptive methods don't mean much by themselves. You need to wear UV-blocking sunglasses (the wraparound styles are preferable as they don't let any foreign elements contact your eyes) and reduce the time you spend outdoors.

What Can You Do to Prevent It?

If you're a surfer, the chances of you opting for the life of a vampire are quite low since it simply sucks. But, there are still measures you can adopt to prevent surfer's eye. For example, wearing surf hats, protective contact lenses, and sunglasses will reduce the exposure and the risk.

That's not all either. As a surfer, you're riding against the wind and in waves that throw salty water to your face, which in turn causes dry eyes. Therefore, it's important to keep your eyes hydrated whether by over-the-counter eye drops or rinsing them with fresh mineral water. These methods will also cleanse your eyes of bacteria.

It does depend on where you live and how you sterilize the water in your abode, but generally, tap water will feature high levels of chlorine, which is not at all good for your eyes. You need to avoid that. Similarly, the water in swimming pools has chlorine, too. You're already in close contact with the ocean, so we believe that you can do without visiting swimming pools.

Moreover, we certainly hold a grudge against the first person who thought bright fluorescent lights were a good idea. Even though your eyes might be in perfect health, these lights are just annoying and they're actually quite upsetting for our eyes, especially if you’ve already started to show some symptoms of surfer's eye. So, it's better not to use them and avoid them as much as possible.

Lastly, if your eyes are already reddening, itching, or burning, don't go out in the sun. Instead, go see a professional. When your cravings for surfing become too much to resist, make sure you paddle out on overcast days.

Wrapping Up...

Surfers are not the only ones who suffer from surfer's eye. Even if you're doing normal activities for long hours under the sun, there's an increased risk of developing pterygium, and it might require treatment. It might even lead to severe cases when it needs to be removed surgically, which doesn't at all mean that it won't recur.

Therefore, doing everything in our power to protect our eyes from the UV rays of the sun and other elements that might cause it (like wind, pollen, sand, and smoke) is crucial. We hope that our article made that clear and helped you with what you can do to protect your eyes. In the end, the eyes are one of the most important assets of a surfer.

Written by
Nico Palacios
surf coaching