Sjögren's (pronounced show-grin's) syndrome is a condition that affects parts of the body that produce fluids like tears and spit (saliva).
It usually starts in people aged 40 to 60 and is much more common in women than men.
It's a long-term condition that can affect your daily life, but there are treatments to help relieve the symptoms.
Symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome
- dry eyes
- a dry mouth
- dry skin
- vaginal dryness
- muscle or joint pain
- swelling between the jaw and ears (swollen salivary glands)
- rashes (especially after being out in the sun)
Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disorder. Your immune system mistakenly attacks your body's own cells and tissues.
Scientists aren't certain why some people develop Sjogren's syndrome. Certain genes put people at higher risk of the disorder, but it appears that a triggering mechanism — such as infection with a particular virus or strain of bacteria — is also necessary.
In Sjogren's syndrome, your immune system first targets the glands that make tears and saliva. But it can also damage other parts of your body, such as:
- Sjögren's syndrome is an autoimmune condition that can occur at any age, but is most common in older women. Many patients develop Sjögren's syndrome as a complication of another autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus
- Symptoms vary in type and intensity, but many people with Sjögren's are able to live normal lives.
- Most of the treatment for Sjögren's syndrome is aimed at relieving symptoms of dry eyes and mouth and preventing and treating long-term complications such as infection and dental disease. Treatments often do not completely eliminate the symptoms of dryness.
- Most patients with Sjögren's syndrome remain healthy, but some rare complications have been described, including an increased risk for cancer of the lymph glands (lymphoma). Thus, regular medical care and follow up is important for all patients.
Causes of Sjögren's syndrome
Sjögren's syndrome is caused by the immune system, the body's defence against illness, damaging healthy parts of the body. This is what's known as an autoimmune condition.
The bits of the body usually affected are those that produce fluids like tears and saliva. But other parts of the body, such as nerves and joints, can also be affected.
It's not clear why the immune system stops working properly.
It may be linked to:
- genetics – some people may be born with genes that make them more likely to get an autoimmune condition
- hormones – the female hormone oestrogen may play a part, as the condition is much more common in women than men
Sjögren's syndrome can occur with other autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. This is known as secondary Sjögren's syndrome.
Primary Sjögren's syndrome is where you do not have any other related conditions.
Treatments for Sjögren's syndrome
There's currently no cure for Sjögren's syndrome, but there are several treatments that can help, such as:
- eye drops that keep your eyes wet (artificial tears)
- sprays, lozenges (medicated sweets) and gels that keep your mouth wet (saliva substitutes)
- medicine that helps your body produce more tears and saliva
Things you can do if you have Sjögren's syndrome
If you have Sjögren's syndrome, there are some things you can do to help relieve your symptoms.
- avoiding dry, smoky or windy places
- avoiding reading, watching TV or looking at screens for a long time
- practising good oral hygiene
- avoiding alcohol and not smoking
Lifestyle and home remedies
Many Sjogren's syndrome symptoms respond well to self-care measures.
To relieve dry eyes:
Use artificial tears, an eye lubricant or both. Artificial tears — in eyedrop form — and eye lubricants — in eyedrop, gel or ointment form — help relieve the discomfort of dry eyes. You don't have to apply eye lubricants as often as artificial tears. Because of their thicker consistency, eye lubricants can blur your vision and collect on your eyelashes, so you might want to use them only overnight.
Your doctor might recommend artificial tears without preservatives, which can irritate the eyes of people with dry eye syndrome.
Increase humidity. Increasing the indoor humidity and reducing your exposure to blowing air can help keep your eyes and mouth from getting uncomfortably dry. For example, avoid sitting in front of a fan or air conditioning vent, and wear goggles or protective eyewear when you go outdoors.
To help with dry mouth:
- Don't smoke. Smoking can irritate and dry out your mouth.
- Increase your fluid intake. Take sips of fluids, particularly water, throughout the day. Avoid drinking coffee or alcohol since they can worsen dry mouth symptoms. Also avoid acidic beverages such as colas and some sports drinks because the acid can harm the enamel of your teeth.
- Stimulate saliva flow. Sugarless gum or citrus-flavored hard candies can boost saliva flow. Because Sjogren's syndrome increases your risk of dental cavities, limit sweets, especially between meals.
- Try artificial saliva. Saliva replacement products often work better than plain water because they contain a lubricant that helps your mouth stay moist longer. These products come as a spray or lozenge.
- Use nasal saline spray. A nasal saline spray can help moisturize and clear nasal passages so that you can breathe freely through your nose. A dry, stuffy nose can increase mouth breathing.
Dry mouth increases your risk of dental cavities and tooth loss. To help prevent those types of problems:
- Brush your teeth and floss after every meal
- Schedule regular dental appointments, at least every six months
- Use daily topical fluoride treatments and antimicrobial mouthwashes
Other areas of dryness
If dry skin is a problem, avoid hot water when you bathe and shower. Pat your skin — don't rub — with a towel, and apply moisturizer when your skin is still damp. Use rubber gloves when doing dishes or housecleaning. Vaginal moisturizers and lubricants help women who have vaginal dryness.