If your dry mouth has been going on for a few weeks, it may be an early sign of Sjogren’s (pronounced show-grins) syndrome. This autoimmune disease gets its name from the Swedish eye doctor who discovered it in the 1930s. It typically targets the tear and saliva glands but can affect many organs and body systems if it’s not diagnosed and treated.
Up to four million Americans have been diagnosed with Sjogren’s, making it the most common autoimmune disease. While it can affect people at any age, symptoms usually pop up between ages 45 and 55. Nine out of 10 Sjogren’s patients are women.
Common Symptoms, Tough Diagnosis
Many Sjogren’s patients go undiagnosed for years because the symptoms can vary from person to person or look like a variety of other conditions, from menopause to fibromyalgia. While there’s no one definitive test for Sjogren’s, doctors use a combination of medical history, physical exam, eye and mouth tests, and blood tests.
Chronic dry mouth is the most common symptom of Sjogren’s. If you’ve been experiencing a chalky, cottony feeling in your mouth for several weeks, your salivary glands may not be doing their job. Going without treatment can make matters worse. Sjogren’s patients can have trouble talking, chewing, or swallowing without added lubrication. The prolonged dryness can lead to a sore or cracked tongue, dry peeling lips, increased dental decay, and acid reflux. Changes in your sense of taste or smell can also be signs of Sjogren’s.
Dry or irritated eyes are another major sign that your endocrine (moisture-making) glands are in trouble. Redness, a sandy or gritty feeling in the eyes, itchiness, and light sensitivity can all point to problems with your tear ducts as a result of Sjogren’s. If left untreated, decreased tearing can increase your risk for infections around the eye and may cause damage to the cornea.
Because Sjogren’s is a systemic disease, it can cause complications throughout the body. Joint pain and stiffness with mild swelling can flare up. Rashes on the arms and legs related to inflammation in small blood vessels and inflammation in the lungs, liver, and kidneys may occur rarely and be tough to diagnose. Chronic exhaustion is a common complaint. Some patients also describe numbness, tingling, and weakness.
Olympic and professional tennis champ Venus Williams first sought treatment when she began to feel fatigued and out of breath no matter how hard she worked. “My symptoms got progressively worse, to the point where I couldn’t play professional tennis anymore,” she told Prevention magazine. Still, it took seven years for her to be properly diagnosed.
Symptoms may continue as mild discomfort gets worse, or in rare cases it may disappear altogether. But if you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s important to take care of them and seek help to prevent complications. Rheumatologists are the specialists who treat and manage autoimmune diseases such as Sjogren’s syndrome. Other specialists, including ophthalmologists, optometrists, and dentists, can help identify and relieve specific symptoms.
To manage Sjogren’s, you may need to treat each of the following symptoms separately.
Your eye doctor can recommend what’s best for you based on your pattern of dryness and fluid production in the eye. Here are some common ways to treat dry eyes.
Preserve your natural tears
Air and wind can dry out your eyes. Consider using shields fitted to the side of glasses, goggles, or wraparound sunglasses to help reduce the evaporation of tears.
Use artificial tears
Many different solutions are available both over the counter and by prescription. An eye ointment can provide moisture overnight. Just be sure to use a small amount to keep from blocking tear ducts.
Ask about punctal occlusion
An eye doctor can perform this simple procedure to insert tiny plugs to block tear drainage.
The trick here is to keep moisture in your mouth, which will help stave off other complications of reduced saliva production.
Suck or chew on something
Simply sucking on sugar-free candy or lozenges or chewing sugar-free gum can stimulate the flow of saliva. Products that contain xylitol can help reduce the risk for tooth decay.
Hydrating throughout the day is an easy and effective treatment for dry mouth. You can also rinse your mouth frequently with water or an alcohol-free mouth rinse to soothe your oral cavity.
Ask your doctor about medications
Medicines such as pilocarpine or cevimeline can help increase saliva production.
For intermittent flare-ups, over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may give you the relief you need. If the joint pain is more long-lasting, prescription NSAIDs can offer longer-term relief.
While there’s no cure for Sjögren’s syndrome, early diagnosis and treatment can help stave off debilitating symptoms that can hamper your quality of life. In a survey of 3,000 Sjogren’s patients, researchers found that for most patients the disease impacts at least one area of their day-to-day lives, and on average Sjogren’s patients use nine treatments or medications to help with their symptoms. Learn as much as possible about the disease process and keep up to date with routine follow-up care to help stay on top of symptoms.