Dry eyes or a dry mouth can be caused by allergies, dehydration or even too many hours logged in front of a computer. However, what can seem like minor annoyances are also hallmark symptoms of the autoimmune condition known as Sjogren's syndrome. The syndrome occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own moisture-producing glands, such as the tear ducts or saliva glands.
Sjogren's syndrome can have serious complications.
“The same white blood cells that cause dry eyes and dry mouth can also cause inflammation in the joints,” says Hayes Wilson, M.D., a rheumatologist at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. “When those white blood cells get in the joints, patients can experience arthritis as well.”
Other complications include extreme fatigue, increased risk of lymphoma and complications with the:
“We may not know exactly what the incidence is because patients oftentimes don’t report it,” explains Dr. Wilson.
According to the Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation, as many as 4 million Americans may have this chronic disease. Nine out of 10 patients with the condition are female.
Sjogren’s syndrome is often referred to as the “invisible disease.”
“You can’t see someone’s dry eyes, dry mouth or joint pain,” he says. “Very frequently, people say, ‘This is something I should just live with,’ but they should be seeing a doctor.”
Nikki, a patient with Sjogren’s syndrome, says even her healthcare providers acknowledge she doesn’t look as sick as she feels.
“Even when I’m in the hospital and really don’t look good, doctors say, ‘You don’t look as sick as you are,’” says Nikki.
She says that many people assume it is a “nuisance” illness and that she can just put in some eye drops to relieve her symptoms.
“That’s not the case,” she says. “It’s all-consuming and life-changing.”
“The first thing we do is treat the disease symptomatically,” says Dr. Wilson.
It’s particularly important that patients use preservative-free eye drops, medication that helps with saliva production and mouth products that don’t cause burning.
He says that his patients frequently use special toothpaste and mouthwash.
“It’s important if you have arthritis that you discuss this syndrome with your healthcare provider,” says Dr. Wilson. “If you have dry mouth or start having more dental disease, it is probably a good idea to see your dentist. In fact, your dentist or your ophthalmologist might be the first person who picks up on the symptoms of this condition.”
If you are experiencing chronic dry eyes or dry mouth, or have these symptoms and arthritis, it is important that you talk with your physician. While there isn’t currently a cure for Sjogren’s syndrome, there are treatment options available. Click here to find a primary care physician near you.