Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune condition that causes damage to the salivary glands and tear glands, although it can also affect the joints, muscles, nerves and other organs. About half the people diagnosed with Sjögren’s also have other rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or scleroderma.
Common symptoms are dry mouth and eyes. These can also be caused by other conditions so it’s important to get them checked by a doctor.
Other symptoms may include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Painful swollen joints
- Raynaud’s phenomenon – cold fingers that turn white or blue
- Swollen salivary glands
- Dry nose, throat, vagina or skin
In Sjögren’s, the immune system attacks the moisture-producing glands of the body and other tissues. The reason for this is not known, although viral infections, stress, and changes in hormones may act as triggers. There may also be a genetic factor.
Women aged between 40 and 60 are most likely to have Sjögren’s syndrome.
Most people with the condition are able to live normal lives without serious complications. Dryness in the eyes and mouth can lead to an increased risk of infections and dental problems. A very small number of people with Sjögren’s may be more likely to develop cancer of the lymph glands, or lymphoma.
How can I manage my Sjögren’s?
There is no cure yet for Sjögren’s syndrome, but the most common symptoms can usually be treated with a combination of specific medications and self-help measures.
Treatment will usually be to manage the symptoms of dry mouth and eyes, such as eye drops and drugs that stimulate the salivary glands. Immune-suppressing drugs may be used for those with complications affecting other parts of the body. You may already be taking medications for other forms of arthritis associated with Sjögren’s syndrome.
- Look after your eyes and mouth. Regular visits to an optometrist or ophthalmologist and the dentist are important. Practise good dental hygiene.
- Exercise to keep your muscles strong and your joints moving. Regular physical activity can combat fatigue and reduce pain.
- Avoid drying conditions and use moisturisers for your skin.
- Reduce stress by getting sufficient rest and learning relaxation techniques. Seek support from others, such as the New Zealand Sjögren’s Syndrome Society
Tips for eye care
- Find eye drops that don’t irritate your eyes, preferably drops without preservatives.
- Practice blinking, especially when reading or using the computer.
- Protect your eyes from drafts, breezes, and wind.
- Use humidifiers to add moisture to the air.
- Don’t smoke.
- Apply mascara only to the tips of your lashes so it doesn’t get in your eyes.
- Wear wraparound sunglasses and consider tinted glasses if you find strong lights uncomfortable.
- Avoid contact lenses because they’ll be uncomfortable if your eyes are dry.
- Keep your eyelids clean to maximise oil secretion from glands in your eyelids.
Tips for mouth care
- Visit a dentist at least twice a year, to have your teeth examined and cleaned. Ask about fluoride supplements or coatings to protect tooth enamel.
- Rinse your mouth with water several times a day. Mouthwash that contains alcohol is drying.
- Gently brush your teeth, gums, and tongue after each meal and before bedtime. Floss your teeth every day.
- Avoid sugary foods or choose sugar-free gum, candy, and soft drink.
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist about saliva substitutes or mouth-coating products.