by Kimberly Allen, RN
Sjogren’s syndrome (pronounced showgren’s) is an autoimmune disorder affecting the glands in your body that secrete fluid, like saliva glands and tear ducts. Researchers estimate that over 3 million people in the US are affected with Sjogren’s syndrome though most experts agree that number to be deceiving as they estimate that at least half of all cases go unreported. Approximately 90% of those diagnosed are women. Although you can develop Sjogren’s syndrome at any age it is usually diagnosed in people between 50-60 years of age.
In Sjogren’s syndrome your immune system attacks the healthy cells in the fluid secreting glands in your body. They don’t know the exact cause but believe it to be triggered by a combination of factors including genetics and environmental factors. Some believe that hormonal factors may also be involved.
Sjogren’s syndrome is classified into two categories, primary and secondary Sjogren’s. Primary Sjogren’s syndrome is when it manifests on it’s ownwithout the involvement of another condition. Secondary Sjogren’s syndrome is when it develops either in combination with or as the result of another autoimmune disorder like rhuematoid arthritis or lupus.
In Sjogren’s syndrome, the fluid secreting glands become inflamed narrowing the glands preventing them from secreting fluid. In most cases the first areas affected are the tear ducts and saliva glands. As the tear duct becomes inflamed your eye gets dry and irritated. Some experience a “gritty” sensation and abraisions on the cornea. Dry eyes can also lead to multiple eye infections. When your salivary glands become inflamed you’ll experience a dry mouth as well as difficulty swalowing. The potential effects of a dry mouth from Sjogren’s syndrome are numerous including tooth decay, gum disease as well as swelling and sores in your mouth. Some people also develop infections and/or stones in the parotid gland in your cheek. Women frequently also experience vaginal dryness due to inflammation of the glands that are responsible for keeping it moist which can lead to recurrent infections as well as pain with intercourse. The glands that provide the moisture to the lining of the lungs can also be affected by Sjogren’s syndrome leading to respiratory infections and breathing problems. Sjogren’s syndrome can also affect other parts of your body including your kidneys, liver, thyroid gland, nerves and joints leading to numerous potential complications like impaired kidney function and infection as well as cirrosis or hepatitis. Some people also develop peripheral neuropathy.
As Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disorder there is no cure for the condition, treatment is directed at managing your symptoms and preventing any complications. If your symptoms are mild you may be able to manage them by using over the counter eye drops to moisten your eyes and sip water more frequently to help your dry mouth. However, if your symptoms are more severe your Dr may recommend certain medications that can increase production of saliva and tears.
Your Dr will also want to address any other conditions that you may have like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Some Drs prefer the use of system wide immunosuppressants like methotrexate or cyclosporine. With proper eye and oral care most people with Sjogren’s syndrome have minimal difficulty and are able to avoid complications. Maintaining optimal oral hygiene is crucial to avoiding numerous complications. There are also numerous new products available to help improve your dry mouth ask your dentist about them. Researchers continue to look for new treatments and expect there to be several new treatments available in the future.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.