What's the Pterygium Belt? Houstonians should look out for common, underdiagnosed eye condition

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Do you suffer from itchy, red or dry eyes? It may be a common, but often under-recognized eye condition called Pterygia. ABC13 anchor Rita Garcia shares her own personal struggle with the condition and why the Hispanic community, especially, should look out for this problem.

Ophthalmologists say the Houston area falls in what is referred to as the "pterygium belt." It means we are more exposed to UV rays from the sun compared to other parts of the country.

ABC13 spoke with Tracy Kelly, who recently had pterygium removal surgery back in August.

"I actually grew up on the beach in Florida. I had a fun childhood, but I paid for it years later," said Kelly.

Kelly said she paid for it because of the environment she grew up in along the coast, and it's the same in Houston. Doctors said Pterygia is caused by prolonged exposure to the ultra violet rays from the sun, and unfortunately, as the condition progresses, it can become a nuisance.

For Kelly, that's exactly how she would describe her experience.

"It looked like I was crying all the time. They were always irritated, red and itchy. People would always ask me, 'What's wrong? Why you are crying? Are you ok?"

Kelly's ophthalmologist, Dr. Justus Thomas, said the condition is common and it's often mistaken for chronic dry-eye.

"I think there's a real opportunity for public education awareness," Dr. Thomas said.

He said if the growth progresses too far, it can actually damage your vision.

When spotted early, Dr. Thomas said he will usually recommend easy treatments like prescription eye drops, wearing a hat outdoors, using polarized sunglasses to reduce any glare (especially while in the water) and shutting off your ceiling fan while sleeping.

By the time patients are in his office though, it's likely time for surgery. Dr. Thomas also mentioned, while Houston is so diverse and he treats patients of all ethnicities, research shows that globally, these pterygium's or growths are more prevalent among Hispanics.

"It's not understood whether that's a genetic phenomenon or whether that's because we have a higher proportion of these patients living in the pterygium belt. It may also have to do with whether there could be higher proportion of these patients in occupations that expose them more to sunlight," he said.

According to the National Library of Medicine, a recent study of under 5,000 Hispanics found men had a higher rate than women, 23.7% versus 11.5%, respectively, of developing pterygia. Low income and low educational status were also associated with high odds of pterygium. Still though, Dr. Thomas said, we are not born with these growths and need more research into the role genetics might play.

For Rita, having that information would answer a lot of her questions too because it is something seen in her family.

"A few years ago, I had pterygium removal surgery in both of my eyes. But for years, I suffered with my eyes always feeling inflamed, appearing red and more often than not, it was painful," Rita said. "Just like Kelly described, for years, I too, was self-conscious about what it looked like and I thought people were always staring."

It has been a journey for both Rita and Kelly of finding relief.

Dr. Thomas said a pterygium can now be removed successfully, and they are less likely to grow back, too. He said recovery time will vary, but in Kelly's case, it was only a few days and now she has a whole new vision for what her life will finally feel like post-surgery.
Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.