Sjögren Syndrome: What Is It, Who Gets It, And How Is It Treated?

by Dr. Arcelita Imasa 

Sjögren syndrome (pronounced as SHOW-grin) is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. An autoimmune disease occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own cells.

Sjögren syndrome is a disease that causes a dry mouth and dry eyes. Most people with Sjögren syndrome have very mild symptoms.

Sjögren syndrome may affect other organs including the joints, the bowel, kidneys, lungs, skin, and nerves.

People affected with Sjögren syndrome can have symptoms of dry mouth and dry eyes for months.

Your eyes may feel gritty or itchy. Your mouth may feel dry, and this may cause swallowing difficulties especially with eating dry foods, or even speaking.

While doctors don’t know what causes Sjögren syndrome, we see that it usually affects women in their late 40s and early 50s.

People with Sjögren syndrome may have other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.

This is because Sjögren syndrome can involve other organs beyond the exocrine glands or in what is called extraglandular manifestations. These other organs include the skin, joints and muscles, the bowel, kidneys, lungs, and nerves.

It is believed that some extraglandular manifestations result from Sjögren syndrome itself, while others result from a comorbid (the simultaneous presence of another medical condition) autoimmune disease.

Thus, some people with Sjögren syndrome may have skin issues such as abnormal dryness, purpura (purple-colored spots on the skin), and eyelid inflammation. Joints and muscle pains, feeling fatigued or tired or having sleep issues are also very common in Sjögren syndrome.

As lungs are affected in 10 to 20% of people with Sjögren syndrome, cough and breathing difficulties can also occur. Nerve issues affect about 10% of people with Sjögren syndrome.

It is also estimated that there is a 5 to 10% lifetime risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer, in Sjögren syndrome, and when it occurs, it is seen to occur approximately seven years after the diagnosis of Sjögren syndrome.

Other ways that Sjögren syndrome affects the blood system is by causing low blood count conditions called anemia and leukopenia. The heart and cardiovascular system can also be affected and there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

In addition to oral (mouth) involvement, Sjögren syndrome can also affect the entire gastrointestinal tract and cause issues such as dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), nausea, and dyspepsia, as well as the liver and pancreas.

Kidney and bladder symptoms can also occur in people with Sjögren syndrome. Gynecologic symptoms including vulvovaginal dryness and itching, and dyspareunia (painful penetration during sex) can also be seen.

Lastly, many people with Sjögren syndrome also suffer from depression.

There is no cure for Sjögren syndrome, and it is a lifelong disease. You should see your doctor if you think you might have Sjögren syndrome.

There are medications like artificial tear and saliva substitutes that may help with your symptoms. You might also need medicine for your immune system.

DR. ARCELITA IMASA is a practicing family physician and the secretary of the Hawaii Workers Center’s Executive Committee of the Board. She grew up in the Philippines before immigrating to Hawaii with her family more than a decade ago.

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