Updated on 

April 5, 2022

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Conjunctiva

What Is the Conjunctiva?

The conjunctiva is a thin membrane lining the inside of your eyelids (both upper and lower) and covering the outer portion of the sclera (white part of the eye).

It doesn't cover the cornea, which is the clear covering on the front of the eye. The area where the conjunctiva meets the cornea is called the limbus.

conjunctiva

Tenon’s capsule is a sheath that surrounds the eyeball and merges with the conjunctiva in the limbal area. This capsule protects the eye and prevents ocular infections from spreading behind it.

The part lining the inner surface of the eyelids is called the palpebral or tarsal conjunctiva. The part covering the sclera is called the bulbar conjunctiva.

The bulbar and palpebral conjunctiva comprise one continuous piece of tissue, connecting at the fornix.

What Is the Function of the Conjunctiva?

The conjunctiva protects the eye from contaminants, as well as from bacteria and other microbes that cause infections.

It also contains many blood vessels, which circulate oxygen and nutrients throughout the eye.

Finally, the conjunctiva provides lubrication to the front surface of the eye and the inner eyelids. It contains goblet cells, which secrete mucin.

Your tear film is comprised of three layers:

  • Mucin
  • Aqueous (water)
  • Lipid (oil)

You need all three intact to have a healthy ocular surface. Without proper moisture, you can develop dry eye symptoms.

Lack of moisture can also lead to friction from blinking, which in turn leads to further irritation.

If you wear contact lenses, you may wonder if you can get a lens stuck behind the eye. The conjunctiva makes this physically impossible. Although the lens can get stuck underneath the eyelid, it cannot go behind the eye.

What Color Is the Conjunctiva?

The conjunctiva is very thin and practically transparent. Except for the blood vessels, any tissue underneath is visible.

What Is The Difference Between Sclera and Conjunctiva?

Some people confuse the conjunctiva for the white part of the eye, which is the sclera. The sclera is a tough, opaque, fibrous tissue.

This connective tissue helps to maintain the shape of your eyeball, while the conjunctiva is a mucous membrane covering the outer part of your sclera. 

Problems Associated with the Conjunctiva & Treatment Options

Many conditions can affect the conjunctiva. Some are common and cause mild symptoms; others are rare and can be vision-or-even-life-threatening.

These conditions include:

Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, sometimes called pink eye. This condition causes redness, chemosis (swelling), tearing, and discomfort. Conjunctivitis can be related to infection (from bacteria or viruses) or allergic reactions.

Viral conjunctivitis often goes away on its own, while bacterial infections may require treatment with antibiotic eye drops. People with allergic conjunctivitis may take antihistamine drops or pills to reduce symptoms.

Pterygium and pinguecula

These are benign growths on the conjunctiva often associated with ultraviolet exposure. They're more common in people who spend a lot of time outdoors.

Pinguecula are small, yellowish bumps, while pterygia look like wedge-shaped growths that extend from the conjunctiva to the cornea. Most of these growths can be managed with lubricating drops and the use of sunglasses protection.

If large enough to affect vision or cause a foreign body sensation, pterygia may be surgically removed.

Subconjunctival hemorrhage

A Subconjunctival hemorrhage occurs when a blood vessel in the conjunctiva breaks, leaking blood underneath the tissue. These hemorrhages appear as bright, red spots on the eye. They may look concerning but are typically harmless. usually resolving within a week or two.

Forceful actions such as sneezing, straining, or heavy lifting can cause conjunctival hemorrhages. Trauma is another frequent cause. This can as simple as rubbing your eyes too hard or scratching your eye while removing contacts.

Less common causes include diabetes, hypertension, and the use of anticoagulant and antiplatelet medications.

Conjunctival cysts

Conjunctival cysts are clear, blister-like bumps filled with fluid. Injury, infection, or inflammation can cause them to form. These cysts may go away on their own but can be drained or cauterized if they irritate the eye.

Pyogenic granuloma

This is a benign growth shaped like a lobe and filled with blood vessels. They can occur on either the palpebral or bulbar conjunctiva.

Pyogenic granulomas often develop after trauma or surgery as a result of abnormal wound healing. Steroid eye drops or injections can help, but some pyogenic granulomas need to be surgically removed.

Squamous cell papillomas

These are conjunctival growths often associated with human papillomavirus. These papillomas are not life threatening. However, they aren't desirable cosmetically, can irritate the eye, and even obstruct the tear duct.

Papillomas can be surgically removed but may grow back.

Conjunctival nevus

A conjunctival nevus is a benign, pigmented growth on the bulbar conjunctiva. These growths can range from yellow to brown to black.

Some people are born with a nevus, while others develop it later on in life. Treatment isn't usually required, though your eye doctor should monitor it to ensure it doesn't become malignant (cancerous).

Conjunctival melanomas

Conjunctival melanomas are rare but cancerous growths. They typically appear as raised, pigmented lesions. Approximately 1 to 6% arise from a nevus.

You should be suspicious if you notice a new growth on your eye after adolescence or if an existing growth changes in color, size, or shape. These growths should be evaluated promptly by an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) for removal. 

Conjunctival melanomas can be life-threatening if the cancer spreads to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system.

Conjunctival lymphomas

These are fleshy, salmon-pink patches that often form in the fornices or bulbar conjunctiva. They're usually painless and can be hidden by the lower or upper eyelid.

An ophthalmologist will take a biopsy of the growth to look for lymphoma. They'll consult an oncologist to determine whether its systemic or localized to the eye.

Systemic lymphoma requires treatment with immunotherapy or chemotherapy. Localized growths can be treated with external beam radiation therapy.

7 Cited Research Articles
  1. Caldwell, M, et al. “Pterygium.” EyeWiki, 21 Mar. 2020, eyewiki.org/Pterygium
  2. Duong, HQ, et al. “Conjunctival Papilloma.” EyeWiki, 11 Jun. 2020, eyewiki.aao.org/Conjunctival_Papilloma
  3. García-Posadas, L et al. “Conjunctival Goblet Cell Function: Effect of Contact Lens Wear and Cytokines.Eye & contact lens vol. 42,2 : 83-90. doi:10.1097/ICL.0000000000000158
  4. Shumway CL, Motlagh M, Wade M. Anatomy, Head and Neck, Eye Conjunctiva. [Updated 2020 Aug 23]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519502/
  5. Suman, K. “Pyogenic Granuloma.” EyeWiki, 21 Oct. 2019, eyewiki.aao.org/Pyogenic_Granuloma
  6. Tarlan, B, and Hayyam K. “Subconjunctival hemorrhage: risk factors and potential indicators.Clinical ophthalmology (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 7 : 1163-70. doi:10.2147/OPTH.S35062
  7. Wong, JR et al. “Management of conjunctival malignant melanoma: a review and update.” Expert review of ophthalmology vol. 9,3 : 185-204. doi:10.1586/17469899.2014.921119
Melody Huang is an optometrist and freelance health writer. Through her writing, Dr. Huang enjoys educating patients on how to lead healthier and happier lives. She also has an interest in Eastern medicine practices and learning about integrative medicine. When she’s not working, Dr. Huang loves reviewing new skin care products, trying interesting food recipes, or hanging with her adopted cats.
https://www.visioncenter.org/author/melody/
Author: Dr. Melody Huang, O.D.  | UPDATED April 5, 2022
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