The conjunctiva is the clear membrane that surrounds and protects the eyeball. When you look at the white of the eye you are really looking through the conjunctiva at the sclera, the tough, leathery outer coat of the eye. The conjunctiva has many small blood vessels running through it. The purpose of the conjunctiva is to lubricate and protect the eye and to allow it to move in its socket.
Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the lining of the eye. Conjunctivitis can be caused by a member of different agents: bacteria, viruses, chemicals, allergies, and more. It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly which is the real cause.
Bacterial conjunctivitis is characterized by swelling of the lid, a yellowish discharge, sometimes a scratchy feeling in the eye, and itching and mattering of the lids, especially in the mornings upon awakening. The conjunctiva is red and sometimes thickened. Often both eyes are involved. The bacteria most commonly at fault are the Staphylococcus, the Streptococcus and Hemophylus influenza. This disease is very contagious, and sometimes entire families are infected. Laboratory cultures are not typically used to make the diagnosis since this is expensive and time consuming.
Usually antibiotic drops and compresses ease the discomfort and clear up the infection in just a few days. Occasionally the infection does not respond well to drops. In those rare cases, a second visit to the office should be made and other measures undertaken. In severe infections, oral antibiotics are necessary. Covering the eye is not a good idea because that incubates the germs. If left untreated, conjunctivitis can create serious complications, such as infections in the cornea, lids and tear ducts.
Prevention is important for avoiding the disease and stopping its spread. Careful washing of the hands, the use of clean handkerchiefs, and the avoidance of contagious individuals are all helpful.