Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body's own immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells and tissues.
The Immune System - Click to Enlarge
In the case of Sjögren's syndrome, the body's white blood cells fight the glands that produce your body's moisture.
Facts about Sjögren's syndrome
Sjögren's syndrome is estimated to be one of the most common autoimmune disorders in the U.S. As many as 4 million Americans are affected by Sjögren's syndrome. About 90 percent are women.
Types of Sjögren's syndrome
Doctors divide Sjögren's syndrome into two types:
Primary Sjögren's. This is the term used when Sjögren's syndrome appears by itself, without any other disease or illness. About half of Sjögren's syndrome cases are primary Sjögren's.
Secondary Sjögren's. When Sjögren's syndrome occurs along with other autoimmune disorders, such as scleroderma, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, it is called secondary Sjögren's. It accounts for half of Sjögren's cases.
Symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome can range from mild to severe—from discomfort to debilitating symptoms that can affect your overall quality of life. The two most common symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth. From there, the disease can evolve into symptoms that affect the entire body.
Symptoms can include:
Dry mouth, which can lead to trouble with talking, chewing, or swallowing
Dry eyes that can have a gritty or burning feeling
Dry, peeling lips
Soreness or cracking on the tongue
Dry or sore throat
Dryness of the skin
Changes in the ability to taste or smell
Fatigue, or tiredness
Sjögren's syndrome is often hard to diagnose. That's because the symptoms can overlap or look like those of other conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or even multiple sclerosis.
Rheumatologists use a point-based test to figure out if your symptoms might be related to Sjögren's syndrome. The higher number of points you have, the more likely it is that you have the disease.
Along with physical symptoms, other tests that can help identify Sjögren's syndrome include blood tests, as well as eye tests and dental tests to take a closer look at eye- and mouth-related symptoms.
There is no cure for Sjögren's syndrome, but treatments can be used to relieve symptoms. The key is to work with a rheumatologist who is committed to helping you find the answers to your problems.
Common eye and mouth symptoms can often be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) eye and mouth drops. Your doctor may be able to prescribe stronger formulas if OTC versions don't help.
If your symptoms from Sjögren's syndrome are more systemic, you might find relief from some of the immunosuppressive drugs that are used to treat other autoimmune disorders. Pain medicine might be needed, too, depending on your symptoms.
Besides remedies to help with dry eyes, dry mouth, and pain, diet can play a role in easing Sjögren's syndrome symptoms. For example, many people find that they're better off avoiding foods that are spicy, hard, crunchy, or acidic, along with alcohol, which all tend to make symptoms worse. Smooth, soft, and creamy foods like soups, casseroles, and pasta dishes are often good choices. Some people with Sjögren's syndrome also have celiac disease and need to avoid gluten as well.
Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may help relieve symptoms of dry eye, and clinical trials on using supplements are underway.
The Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation also suggests that you:
Avoid medicines that might further dry your eyes, such as certain antihistamines and antidepressants. Talk with your doctors about these choices.
Don't sit near air conditioning or heating vents. The dry air can also contribute to dry eyes.
Use eye lubricants daily, even if you don't have symptoms, and try sleeping with special eye gels that your doctor can prescribe.
Use warm compresses daily to soothe irritated eyelids.
Brush your teeth after each meal and floss daily to help prevent cavities caused by dry mouth.
Get routine dental checkups.
Avoid carbonated or acidic drinks.
Chew sugarless gum, if needed, to help lubricate your mouth.
Try using a room humidifier.