Common Symptoms May Point to Sjogren’s Syndrome

Sjogren’s syndrome, a disorder of the immune system characterized most commonly by dry eyes and dry mouth, occurs when white blood cells attack saliva glands, tear glands, and other tissues, leading to a significant reduction in saliva and tear production.

Sjogren’s syndrome can occur in anyone at any time but most commonly affects older women. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Sjogren’s affects between one million and four million Americans. Most people with the disease are over the age of 40 when diagnosed. Women are nine times more likely to develop Sjogren’s than men.

Although with the disease, the immune system initially targets the glands that produce tears and saliva, Sjogren’s can also damage other body parts, including the liver, lungs, thyroid, kidneys, joints, nerves and skin.

Researchers are uncertain why some people are affected by Sjogren’s syndrome. There is evidently some hereditary risk related to the disease, but it is believed that some triggering mechanism, such as infection with a particular virus, is also involved. It’s also common for people who have Sjogren’s syndrome to have a rheumatic disease, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

Accurate diagnosis depends on consideration of a combination of symptoms, physical examination, blood tests, and occasionally specialized studies. Dry eyes and mouth may be early signs of the conditions but require additional investigation because these symptoms can be the result of many other conditions or medications. Specific tests can assess any reduction in tear or saliva production. An eye examination can help to detect eye changes associated with Sjogren’s. Blood tests can determine the presence of antibodies that are characteristic of the disease. Biopsies of saliva glands also can be used to establish a diagnosis.

There is no known cure for Sjogren’s, nor is there a specific treatment to restore gland secretion. However, treatments aim to mitigate the most bothersome symptoms. Regularly applied artificial tears help to combat dry eyes. Measures such as blocking tear ducts can be used in severe cases. Eye drops that reduce inflammation in the glands around the eyes can be used to increase tear production. Humidifiers and nasal saline irrigation can improve nasal dryness. Sjogren’s patients should be vigilant in accessing regular dental care to prevent cavities and tooth loss that can occur as a complication of the disease. If dry eyes are particularly problematic, it’s important to see an ophthalmologist regularly to check for any cornea damage. Excessive redness or pain in the eyes warrants evaluation for eye infection.

Sjogren’s syndrome can damage vital organs of the body with symptoms that remain stable, worsen, or go into remission. For some people, the condition is limited to dry eyes and mouth while others undergo cycles of good health followed by severe disease. For others, the condition involves blurred vision, ongoing eye discomfort, recurring mouth infections, hoarseness, and difficulty swallowing or eating. Sometimes debilitating fatigue and joint pain can negatively impact quality of life.

If symptoms of dry eyes and dry mouth have become bothersome, consult your provider. It may be helpful to pursue a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan to address the problem. Sometimes the answer is as simple as switching medications. In any event, it’s worth taking the time to identify the source of your concern and follow up with the necessary steps to reduce symptoms to the greatest extent possible.

Ithaca Primary Care

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