Pterygia, a common underdiagnosed eye condition, targeting Houstonians, especially the Hispanic community

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — Do you suffer from itchy, red or dry eyes? It may be a common but often underrecognized eye condition called pterygia. ABC13 anchor Rita Garcia shares her own personal struggle with the condition and why the Hispanic community, in particular, should pay attention to the issue.

Ophthalmologists say the Houston area is part of what’s called the “pterygium belt.” This means that we are more exposed to UV rays from the sun than in other parts of the country.

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

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

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 have said that pterygia is caused by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun and unfortunately as the disease progresses it can become a nuisance.

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

“It seemed like I was crying all the time. They were always irritated and red and itchy. People were always asking me, ‘What’s wrong? Why are you crying? Are you okay?’

Kelly’s ophthalmologist, Dr Justus Thomas, said the condition is common and is often confused with chronic dry eye.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for public 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 would usually recommend simple treatments like prescription eye drops, wearing a hat outside, using polarized sunglasses to reduce any glare (especially in water) and turning off your ceiling fan while you sleep.

By the time the patients are in his office, it’s probably time for surgery. Dr. Thomas also mentioned that although Houston is so diverse and treats patients of all ethnicities, research shows that globally these pterygiums or growths are more prevalent among Hispanics.

“It is unclear if this is a genetic phenomenon or if it is because we have a higher proportion of these patients living in the pterygium belt. It may also have to do with the question of whether whether there might be a higher proportion of these patients in occupations that expose them to more sunlight,” he said.

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

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

“A few years ago I had surgery to remove the pterygium in both my eyes. But for years I suffered with my eyes always inflamed, appearing red and most often it was painful” , said Rita. “Just like Kelly described it, for years I too was aware of what it looked like and thought people were still watching.”

It has been a journey for Rita and Kelly to find relief.

Dr Thomas said a pterygium can now be successfully removed and is also less likely to grow back. 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 of what her life will ultimately look like post-surgery.

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