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Sjögren's Syndrome

Understanding Sjögren’s Syndrome and the Immune System

In a normal, healthy body, the immune system attacks foreign bacteria or invaders. However, sometimes the immune system starts attacking your own body, because it (mistakenly) thinks foreign material is present. If this happens, it causes destruction of healthy tissue. This condition 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, in the form of saliva and tears. In a person with Sjögren’s syndrome, the body fails to produce enough moisture.

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

The condition is typically diagnosed as either primary or secondary. In primary Sjögren’s syndrome, there’s 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 can cause more dryness than the secondary type.

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 also often occurs. This may 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.

Risk Factors for Sjögren’s Syndrome

There’s no one specific cause or risk factor for Sjögren’s syndrome. Nine out of 10 people who have the condition are women, and post-menopausal women are particularly likely to develop the problem. 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.

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 also be ordered.

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

How Is Sjögren’s Syndrome Treated?

There’s 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 recommended. 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?

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. Tell your doctor if your main salivary gland changes sizes or seems swollen. The following can all be symptoms of lymphoma:

  • night sweats,
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss

Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Jaime Herndon
Medically reviewed on: Jan 20, 2016: Steve Kim, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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