If you have allergies or have ever hung out in the desert heat, you’re bound to get a little dry-mouthed and itchy-eyed. But if these symptoms become chronic—meaning, they occur all the time—and are accompanied with joint pain and fatigue, they could indicate something more serious called Sjögren’s (pronounced SHOW-grins) syndrome.
While you might not have heard of this disease before, Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects nearly 4 million Americans each year (and potentially 2.5 million more who are undiagnosed). Typically, the average age for diagnosis is 40, but it can occur at any age—and predominately more in women than men.
Sjögren’s is a chronic and usually progressive immune system condition that can affect any of the body’s glands that produce moisture—like your eyes and mouth (salivary glands). In some cases, it can even affect vital organs and cause a host of other problems.
Why haven’t you heard about Sjögren’s before?
The reason, said Ernest Vina, MD, a rheumatologist at Banner – University Medical Center in Tucson, AZ, could be that symptoms frequently overlap with or “mimic” those of other health conditions.
“It can be challenging to recognize and diagnose because many conditions can mimic Sjögren’s, including normal age-related dryness of the eyes and mouth, side-effects of certain medications (like antidepressants), infections or other autoimmune diseases, lymphoma and other hematologic malignancies,” Dr. Vina said. “It’s important for those who may have symptoms of the disease to be evaluated by a rheumatologist who can confirm a diagnosis or help find a potential cause for the symptoms.”
We spoke with Dr. Vina to gain a better understanding of the symptoms, diagnose and treatment for Sjögren’s syndrome.
Symptoms of Sjögren’s
The severity of the disease can vary widely from person to person, but the most common symptoms are eyes that irch or feel dry and dry mouth (lack of tears and saliva).
“With your eyes, it can feel like you have sand in your eyes, or they may appear red and irritated,” Dr. Vina said. “With your mouth, you might find it difficult to swallow or speak. You may also experience mouth sores or dental decay and cavities."
The disease can also affect other parts of your body, such as your skin, joints, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels and digestive organs and nerves causing symptoms such as:
- Vaginal dryness and pain during intercourse
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Enlarged lymph glands
- Shortness of breath
- Rash on the skin of hands and feet
Diagnosing Sjögren’s syndrome
Since so many of the body’s systems can be affected, it can make it even harder to diagnose. And currently, there is no single test to confirm Sjögren’s syndrome.
To diagnose, your doctor will review your medical history, perform a physical exam, discuss your symptoms and may run a blood test or lip biopsy. However, having a positive blood test doesn’t necessarily mean you may have Sjögren’s. This is where a rheumatologist can help.
Rheumatologists are providers primarily responsible for diagnosing and managing Sjögren’s syndrome and other autoimmune disorders. They will run a number of tests and ask questions to determine a diagnosis. Oftentimes, you’ll also get input from an eye doctor or dentist to help manage and preserve your vision and oral hygiene.
Two types of syndromes
If you receive a diagnosis of Sjögren’s syndrome, your doctor will label it as secondary or primary. Secondary means it occurs with another autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, while primary Sjögren’s syndrome means it occurs on its own.
Treating Sjögren’s syndrome
Although there is no cure for Sjögren’s, proper treatment can help relieve symptoms and allow people with Sjögren’s syndrome to live more comfortably.
Because Sjögren’s syndrome affects everyone differently, your doctors will develop a treatment plan individualized to you, weighing potential benefits, side-effects and whether your syndrome occurs on its own or with another autoimmune disorder.
Prescription eye drops and artificial tears may help with eye dryness and there are certain prescription medications that may increase saliva production, in addition to sucking on sugar-free candy or chewing sugar-free gum. To relieve joint pain, anti-inflammatory medicines may bring relief. And there are a few immunosuppressive therapies that can help with disease symptoms.
Living with Sjögren’s
Sjögren’s syndrome is a lifelong, chronic condition, but a vast majority of patients remain healthy, without serious complications.
“An example is professional tennis player, Venus Williams, who continues to play at a competitive level despite having the disease for years now,” Dr. Vina said.
If you are diagnosed with Sjögren’s, make sure you see your physician regularly for general health screenings and look for any abnormal swelling of the glands around the face, neck, groin or underarms. Although rare, this could signal lymphoma, a type of cancer that can develop in some who’ve been living with Sjögren’s syndrome for a while.
If you think you may have Sjögren’s syndrome
If you are experiencing symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome, schedule an appointment with your doctor or one of our Banner Health specialists. It’s important to share this information with your doctor. If left untreated, you can have significant, long-term complications.
To find a specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.