Sjogren's Syndrome

Written by Jaime Herndon | Published on August 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Understanding Sjögren’s Syndrome and the Immune System

In a healthy body, the immune system attacks foreign bacteria or invaders. Sometimes the immune system starts attacking your own body, because it thinks foreign material is present. If this happens, it causes destruction of healthy tissue. This problem is called an autoimmune disorder.

Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that primarily affects salivary and lacrimal glands. These glands help the body create moisture in the eyes and mouth, such as saliva and tears. In an individual with Sjögren’s syndrome, the body fails to produce enough moisture.

It is a chronic, systemic disorder that affects one to four million people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders. (NINDS)

The condition is typically diagnosed as either primary or secondary. In primary Sjögren’s syndrome, there is no other autoimmune disease present. Secondary Sjögren’s syndrome is diagnosed when an individual has another autoimmune disease. Primary Sjögren’s syndrome also tends to be more aggressive and cause more dryness than the secondary kind.

Risk Factors for Sjögren’s Syndrome

There is no one cause or risk factor for Sjögren’s syndrome. According to the Arthritis Foundation, nine out of 10 people who have the condition are women, and post-menopausal women are particularly likely to develop the problem. (Arthritis Foundation) Research is currently being done to see if estrogen is associated with the condition. Other autoimmune disorders are often present, and a family history of the condition appears to increase your risk of developing the syndrome.

What Are the Symptoms of Sjögren’s Syndrome?

Dry mouth is a common symptom, which can increase your risk of cavities. It can also make it more difficult to speak or swallow. Chewing gum or sucking on candies may help with this symptom.

Dryness of the eyes often occurs. This can feel like a burning sensation or like something is in your eye.

Sjögren’s syndrome can affect the whole body. Some individuals have vaginal dryness, dry skin, fatigue, rashes, or joint pain. Sjögren’s syndrome can cause inflammation of organs like the kidneys or lungs. If you have constant inflammation, your doctor might prescribe medications to help prevent organ damage. These medications are called disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. These help tamp down the immune system even more than immune-suppressing drugs.

How Is Sjögren’s Syndrome Diagnosed?

No one diagnostic test exists for this condition. Because the symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome are generalized symptoms, your doctor will run a variety of tests to diagnose the problem. In addition to a physical exam and a medical history, your doctor may perform blood tests to check for certain antibodies that are linked to Sjögren’s syndrome. Eye tests and a lip biopsy can help check eye moisture and salivary gland production. A special X-ray of the salivary glands, called a saliogram, may be ordered.

Tell your doctor about any medications or supplements you are taking. Side effects of certain drugs are similar to the symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome.

How Is Sjögren’s Syndrome Treated?

There is no cure for Sjögren’s syndrome, but it can be treated. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms. Treatments that replace moisture are typically prescribed, such as eye drops or lotions. If an individual has joint problems, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are suggested. Severe symptoms may require immunosuppressants or corticosteroids. Getting plenty of rest and eating a healthy diet can help combat fatigue.

Are There Any Complications of Sjögren’s Syndrome?

According to the Arthritis Foundation, a possible complication of Sjögren’s syndrome is an increased risk of developing lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is related to the immune system. If your main salivary gland changes sizes or seems swollen, tell your doctor. Night sweats, fever, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss can all be symptoms of lymphoma. If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor. .

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