oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
The conjunctiva is the thin mucous membrane lining the eyelid. It is reflected at the upper and lower fornices on to the anterior surface of the eyeball. It fuses with the cornea along the conjunctival limbus forming a circular 'opening' for the cornea. The conjunctival limbus is situated about 1 mm anterior to the edge of the corneal limbus (where the transparent cornea stops and the opaque sclera starts). It is a highly vascular membrane. It is related to the cornea via the epithelium which is continuous (if slightly different in nature) between the conjunctiva and the cornea. Thus, infections, inflammatory conditions and trauma can all potentially extend from one structure to the other.
Symptoms in conjunctival problems
Specific symptoms vary according to the exact underlying problem but there are some common features:
- Complaints of having a red eye.
- Epiphora (excess tears).
- Irritation - this may be a foreign body sensation due to the presence of follicles or papillae. Itching is the hallmark of allergic conjunctivitis but may also occur in blepharitis or keratoconjunctivitis sicca.
- Pain - this is generally mild. In the absence of trauma, significant pain is unusual and should trigger suspicion of corneal involvement.
- Complaints of discharge.
Assessment of the conjunctiva
There are three components to conjunctival examination:
- Assess what you can see:
- Conjunctival reaction - this refers to how red the eye is. This ranges from mild (the eye is 'pink'), such as in a mild allergic reaction, to severe, such as in a serious infection. It may be diffuse or focal and may be limited to the limbus (perilimbal injection - traditionally ascribed to uveitis). A subconjunctival haemorrhage will be a deep red colour, obscuring the underlying sclera.
- Discharge - this may provide a helpful pointer to the aetiology of a conjunctivitis. Watery discharge suggests an acute viral infection. A mucoid discharge suggests a vernal infection whereas a purulent one occurs in severe bacterial infections.
- Presence of follicles or papillae - distinguishing one from the other can be tricky and both can occur together.
- Papillae - these are formed when the conjunctival inflammation is effectively limited by fibrous septa, so giving rise to the appearance of vascular bulges, generally found on the upper tarsal conjunctiva. They can coalesce to form giant (cobblestone) papillae. They occur in allergic, bacterial and gonococcal conjunctivitides.
- Follicles - these are lymphoid collections and look like raised gelatinous pale bumps (like small grains of rice). They tend to be found on the lower tarsal conjunctiva and along the upper tarsal border. These are more often associated with viral conjunctivitis.
- Oedema (chemosis) - translucent swelling of the conjunctiva, suggesting severe inflammation. This commonly occurs immediately after cataract surgery and, in this context, it is not worrying as long as it settles. It can also occur if there is infection or irritation. An important cause is irritation tissue congestion caused by retrobulbar masses or thyroid orbitopathy.
- Scarring - the lid may be difficult to pull down or to evert. This occurs as a result of trachoma, ocular cicatricial pemphigoid and can occur due to atopic conjunctivitis or prolonged use of topical medication.
- Look for what you can't see:
- Evert the lids - foreign bodies and lesions may be completely concealed within the conjunctival fornices.
- Stain with fluorescein - a small conjunctival laceration may well show up when it was otherwise not visible. It is particularly important to do this when there is a strongly suggestive history but no obvious tear. If you are still struggling, get the patient to look in the opposite direction to the suspected site of injury, so gently causing the conjunctiva to unfold and stretch out.
- Swab - this is necessary in the case of severe, purulent conjunctivitis, follicular conjunctivitis (to differentiate viral from chlamydial infection) and in neonatal conjunctivitis.
- Examine structures other than the conjunctiva:
- Any patient presenting with apparent conjunctival problems should be further assessed for associated ocular problems.
- Assessment of the visual acuities and cornea is mandatory.
- Pain, photophobia, a reduced visual acuity and headaches should prompt an effort to rule out uveitis.
- There may be associated blepharitis.
- Lymphadenopathy should be assessed (check the preauricular and submandibular nodes) as this occurs in viral, chlamydial and gonococcal infections.
See separate article Conjunctivitis to find out more about:
- Viral conjunctivitis.
- Bacterial conjunctivitis (overview).
- Allergic conjunctivitis.
- Other types of conjunctivitis (eg toxic conjunctivitis, pediculosis, floppy eyelid syndrome, etc.).
See separate article Bacterial Conjunctivitis which covers:
- Simple bacterial conjunctivitis.
- Gonococcal conjunctivitis.
- Chlamydial conjunctivitis.
- Ophthalmia neonatorum.
- Nature: this is a bleed within the conjunctiva that presents as a sudden, painless red eye. There may or may not be trauma associated with it (the trauma may be very minor and not remembered, such as a vigorous rubbing of the eye!). Failure to visualise the posterior border of a traumatic subconjunctival haemorrhage may suggest orbital or retro-orbital trauma. Occasionally, it can be associated with systemic hypertension.
- Key features: painless red eye with an otherwise completely normal examination. There are no corneal lacerations. The blood sometimes settles gravitationally. It may involve the entire circumference of the eye and look quite dramatic.
- Management: once a normal result from examination has been ascertained, the patient should be reassured. If the bleed is to the extent that the conjunctiva bulges out, lubricants may help symptomatically. If it occurs repeatedly, run through a coagulation problem checklist. Check blood pressure if bilateral.
Conjunctival foreign bodies
See also separate article Ocular Foreign Bodies and Corneal Abrasions.
- Nature: the body may be very superficial and lie on the conjunctiva, or may be embedded within it - particularly if it is old, in which case there may be an associated granuloma.
- Key features: history, foreign body sensation, foreign body evident.
- Management: assess for any further foreign body (evert the lid, get the patient to look in all directions to 'stretch' the conjunctiva out) and, if necessary, check pH (eg mortar particles in labourers, chemical particles in laboratory workers). Try removing with saline irrigation in the first instance. Otherwise, remove under local anaesthetic with a cotton bud (using a needle will cause bleeding and visualisation will be poor). If fully removed, give a course of antibiotic ointment (eg chloramphenicol three times daily for 5 days). If you have suspicions that there may be residual material or if the foreign body is too embedded to remove with a cotton bud, refer.
- Nature: these may be minor and isolated, such as may occur in gardeners or may be in the context of more extensive injury.
- Key features: foreign body sensation, lacrimation, minimal pain. Laceration visible on examination. Small lacerations will only be seen on fluorescein staining.
- Management: ensure that there is no associated injury - is the small laceration actually an entry point for an intraocular foreign body?
Seidel's test: this is a test designed to assess for the presence of anterior chamber leakage (and hence globe perforation). Apply a strip of 10% fluorescein to the affected area and look at it with a cobalt blue filter. The fluorescein appears as a dark orange colour. Any leaking aqueous will dilute it, giving it a bright luminescence (Seidel's positive). This indicates a perforation. Put a hard shield over the eye, make the patient nil by mouth until an ophthalmology review and refer urgently.Small lacerations (≤ about 2 mm) should heal spontaneously. Give antibiotic cover as for a foreign body (above). Larger lacerations may need suturing; refer.
Cogan's senile plaque:
- Nature: found in older people (generally >70 years old) - the exact pathophysiology is unknown but they represent areas of scleral translucency. They are benign.
- Key features: vertically ovoid irregular dark grey-brown areas seen in the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions, lateral to the cornea. They may eventually calcify and become white.
- Management: they do not need any treatment.
- Nature: a very common finding which is usually bilateral and asymptomatic. Benign.
- Key features: small yellow-white deposits at the 3 o'clock or 9 o'clock positions, adjacent to the limbus. They look like a tiny (usually triangular- shaped) cluster of pale, translucent pips.
- Management: they are left alone unless they become inflamed, in which case they are then treated with a short course of weak steroids.
- Nature: triangular (pointing towards the pupil) fibrovascular growth on the conjunctival tissue. This often arises in patients who have lived in hot climates.
- Key features: painless opacity slowly growing over the cornea from the nasal limbus.
- Management: simple surgical excision can be carried out (either for cosmetic reasons or because it is encroaching on the central visual axis) but recurrence is frequent.
- Nature: very commonly occurring chalky white/yellow deposits which are usually found on the inferior tarsal conjunctiva. They are more common in the elderly and those with meibomian gland disease (see blepharitis).
- Key features: these are usually asymptomatic (unless very large when a foreign body sensation is experienced), well-defined deposits.
- Management: they are left alone unless symptomatic when they can be removed under topical anaesthetic with a needle.
- Nature: a very common, benign lesion.
- Key features: this is an asymptomatic (unless very large) clear fluid-filled lesion occurring anywhere in the conjunctiva.
- Management: they are left alone unless symptomatic when they can be removed, under topical anaesthetic, with a needle.
Blistering mucocutaneous diseases
- Nature: an idiopathic subepidermal blistering and scarring autoimmune condition occurring in the mucocutaneous parts of the body. It always occurs bilaterally (not necessarily symmetrically) but isolated conjunctival involvement is not common.
- Features: typically this occurs in the middle-aged patient, more often female. Nonspecific viral conjunctivitis-type symptoms occur initially with progressive appearance of papillae, bullae and eventually fibrosis. Diffuse hyperaemia and oedema persist during the latent phases of the condition.
- Management: topical steroids, subconjunctival mitomycin C and silicone contact lenses initially. Most patients will also benefit from systemic steroids, dapsone ± cytotoxic agents. Surgery is reserved for those with complications such as cicatricial entropion or serious corneal complications.
- Nature: an acute, severe blistering disease of unknown exact aetiology (hypersensitivity to drugs and viral infections appear to be precipitating factors). A vasculitis affects the skin and mucous membranes (90% of patients have conjunctival involvement).
- Features: it occurs in young, previously healthy individuals (more often males) who present with fever, malaise, sore throat (± a cough) and arthralgia. A mild conjunctivitis is noted in all but a handful of patients who experience a severe membranous or pseudomembranous conjunctivitis.
- Management: topical and systemic steroids (± antivirals if herpes is suspected to have triggered it), lubricants and possibly surgical intervention where the vasculitis and complications such as severe scarring have occurred.
- Mucus fishing syndrome: the patient embarks on cycles of fishing out mucus from the conjunctiva. The most common underlying cause of mucus formation is keratoconjunctivitis sicca but this repetitive trauma results in more mucus formation (and more fishing out). Treatment of the underlying cause and patient counselling are important.
- Ligneous conjunctivitis: this is a very rare disorder characterised by the repetitive formation of pseudomembranes around the conjunctiva. The mouth, nasopharynx, trachea and vagina may also be affected. It is treated with topical ciclosporin.
- Conjunctival epithelial melanosis: a benign condition seen in dark-skinned patients. It is characterised by asymmetrical, bilateral flat, patchy brown pigmentation occurring from childhood.
- Congenital ocular melanosis: multiple slate-grey lesions occurring in the episclera, caused by melanocytic hyperplasia. This may be a precursor to melanoma formation and therefore these patients are monitored in the eye clinic.
- Conjunctival naevus: a relatively uncommon but benign pigmented lesion most commonly occurring adjacent to the limbus in the first two decades of life. If it causes irritation or if there is suspicion of malignant change, it is excised.
- Primary acquired melanosis: an uncommon, usually unilateral condition affecting middle-aged Caucasian patients, characterised by progressive, diffuse pigmentation of the sclera. These are flat lesions - any nodular appearance prompts biopsy to rule out melanoma.
- Conjunctival melanoma: this accounts for 2% of ocular malignancies. It is unusual for it to arise completely spontaneously - there will usually have been preceding acquired melanosis (60-70% of cases) or a naevus (20% of cases). It presents as a dark brown/grey nodule (amelanotic melanomas are bright pink) in the fifth to sixth decade of life, generally in Caucasians (very rarely in patients of African origin), often near the limbus. Well circumscribed lesions are excised but diffuse lesions also benefit from cryotherapy or mitomycin C. Recurrences are treated by resection ± radiotherapy. There is a 25% mortality rate at 10 years.
- Conjunctival papilloma: this is either pedunculated (caused by infection with the human papillomavirus which may occur at birth) or sessile (a noninfectious condition occurring in middle age which is thought to be linked to ultraviolet light exposure). The former appears as clusters of papillomas which may be bilateral and are most often located in the fornix or palpebral conjunctiva. Small lesions are left alone as this is a self-limiting condition but large ones may need excision biopsy or cryotherapy. Sessile (neoplastic) papillomas appear as (often single) vascular frond-like lesions growing over the bulbar conjunctiva. Treatment is by excision.
- Conjunctival intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN): this is an uncommon, slowly progressive unilateral condition characterised by grey-white hyperplastic epithelium which extends on to the cornea. Ultraviolet light exposure, human papillomavirus infection and AIDS are all risk factors. Localised lesions are treated by excision but more diffuse lesions may need additional treatment with chemotherapy such as 5-fluorouracil and interferon alpha-2b.
- Conjunctival squamous cell carcinoma: this rare tumour is slow-growing and of low-grade malignancy; it is more common in Caucasian patients and tends to occur at younger ages as you approach the equator. It is a form of CIN that has broken through the basement membrane or that has metastasised. It presents as a gelatinous fleshy mass, usually near the limbus and commonly associated with prominent 'feeder' vessels. Xeroderma pigmentosum and AIDS are risk factors. It is treated with surgery and chemotherapy but advanced cases may warrant enucleation (taking out the contents of the globe) or exenteration (taking out the globe and adjacent structures). Mortality rate may be up to 8%.
Other conjunctival tumours:
- Conjunctival sebaceous gland carcinoma: a very rare but aggressive tumour which may mimic chronic blepharoconjunctivitis, seen in the context of conjunctival invasion of sebaceous gland carcinoma and (less commonly) primary intraepithelial carcinoma.
- Epibulbar choristoma: a choristoma is a congenital overgrowth of normal tissue in an abnormal location. In this case, it may be dermoid (which may occur in isolation or in Goldenhar's syndrome) or a lipodermoid which only presents in adult life. The former is a smooth, soft, subconjunctival mass which can grow very large and the latter is a soft, movable subconjunctival mass often situated laterally. Dermoids may need surgical excision if they become symptomatic (irritation, disturbance of vision) but lipodermoids are best left alone as surgery is associated with complications such as scarring, ptosis and dry eye.
- Conjunctival lymphoma: this may range from benign, reactive hyperplasia to fully developed lymphoma. It usually presents late in life with a painless swelling which may occasionally irritate the patient. It is a slow-growing, salmon-pink infiltrate which creeps across the bulbar conjunctiva (ie over the sclera). Radiotherapy, chemotherapy, cryotherapy, local injection of interferon alpha-2b and surgical excision are all treatment options.
- Conjunctival Kaposi's sarcoma: this is a slow-growing malignancy occurring in AIDS patients. There is a painless, slightly irritated, flat discolouration which may look a little like a longstanding subconjunctival haemorrhage. Focal radiotherapy and excision are possible treatment options if the patient experiences bleeding, and recurrent infection, or for cosmetic reasons.
- Conjunctival pyogenic granuloma: (this is a misnomer, as this is neither pyogenic nor granulomatous inflammation!) - this benign, fleshy, pedunculated, vascular mass most commonly occurs at the site of chronic infection (such as where there has been a chalazion) or several weeks after surgery (such as following excision of a pterygium). It may cause irritation or inadequate lid closure depending on its size and location. It is treated by excision.
Other conjunctival problems
- Symblepharon: this is when adhesions arise between bulbar and palpebral conjunctiva. This can occur in a number of situations, eg following a burns injury, with recurrent pterygia, in Stevens-Johnson syndrome, etc.
Further reading & references
- Edward S. Harkness Eye Institute; Digital Reference of Ophthalmology; Lots of excellent images
- Snell RS, Lemp MA. Clinical Anatomy of the Eye, 2nd Ed. Blackwell Sciences (1998)
- Kanski J. Clinical Ophthalmology, A Systematic Approach, 5th ed. Butterworth Heinemann (2003)
- Handbook of Ocular Disease Management
- Cu-Unjieng AB, Shields CL, Shields JA, et al; Iris melanoma in ocular melanocytosis. Cornea. 1995 Mar;14(2):206-9.
- Roque MR et al; Melanoma, Conjunctival, eMedicine, Jan 2010
- Duong HQ et al; Papilloma, Conjunctival, eMedicine, Feb 2010
- DeBacker C et al; Squamous cell carcinoma, Conjunctival, eMedicine, Mar 2010
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Olivia Scott
Dr Gurvinder Rull