Sjogren's Syndrome

Image of an elderly woman holding a tissue.

Pronounced SHOW-grins, Sjogren's syndrome is a disorder of the immune system, or an autoimmune disease, which causes the body's immune system to attack and harm the body's glands. Your glands are responsible for the production of saliva, tears, and other lubrication necessary for the proper function of the body.

Sjogren's Syndrome Symptoms and Side Effects

The two most common symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome are dry eyes and mouth. Eye dryness usually leads to an itchy, gritty feeling. Dry mouth causes a cottony feeling which can make regular speaking and swallowing difficult. In Sjogren's syndrome, the body's immune system first attacks the body's glands, but eventually might target other parts of the body like the liver, kidneys, joints, nerves, thyroid, skin, and lungs. In addition to dry eyes and mouth, people with Sjogren's syndrome might also experience one or more of the following:

  • Dry cough
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Joint pain, swelling, and/or stiffness
  • Dry skin and skin rashes
  • Peripheral neuropathy

If left untreated, symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome, particularly dry mouth and dry eyes, can lead to further complications such as cavities, oral yeast infections, and corneal ulcers.

Causes and Risk Factors

Like many autoimmune diseases, the exact cause of Sjogren's syndrome is not understood. Research links the presence of a certain gene in the body to Sjogren's syndrome, but it may also develop with an undetermined trigger such as a bacterial or viral infection. Post-menopausal women over 40 are most likely to develop Sjogren's syndrome. Sometimes present alone, it often accompanies other autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.

Diagnosis

An eye care professional usually diagnoses Sjogren's syndrome after a patient presents with dry eyes. After ruling out other possible causes such as medications, several tests will be performed to pinpoint Sjogren's syndrome, including:

  • Blood tests for certain markers indicative of Sjogren's syndrome
  • Schirmer’s test to measure tear production
  • Slit lamp eye exam
  • Sialogram, an X-ray of the salivary glands
  • Salivary scintigraphy, which tracks an isotope's journey through the body's glands
  • Biopsy looking for inflammatory cells

Treatment

No cure for Sjogren's syndrome has been developed. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms. Treatments include eye drops and lubricants, mouth lubricants, immune system suppressants, medications to increase saliva production, and surgery to prevent tears from draining. Patients have also found relief by increasing water intake and wearing protective eye glasses or goggles outdoors.