Sjögren syndrome

Sjögren syndrome is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks different parts of the body, but most often the small glands that produce tears, saliva, or both. People with Sjögren syndrome have dry eyes and mouths. Sometimes Sjögren syndrome occurs in people who have no other disease; it also occurs in people with rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, or systemic lupus erythematosus.

About 1 of 100 people over the age of 60 have Sjögren syndrome. It affects women approximately nine times more often than men.

Symptoms of Sjögren syndrome

The main symptoms of Sjögren syndrome are

  • dry, painfully itchy eyes, which are often red due to the lack of tears
  • dry mouth, which can cause difficulty swallowing and speaking.

Because of the lack of moisture, people with Sjögren syndrome are more susceptible to eye and throat infections and dental problems.

Sjögren syndrome may also cause other symptoms, such as

  • swollen and stiff joints
  • swollen salivary glands
  • dry skin or rashes
  • vaginal dryness

Treating Sjögren syndrome

Sjögren's syndrome can't be cured, but treatment can help relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can reduce joint swelling, stiffness, and muscle aches.

Corticosteroids or immunosuppressive drugs may be needed for more serious complications.

Artificial tears. Mild cases of dry eye can be treated with eye drops that mimic the natural tear film; eye ointments are available for nighttime use.

Punctal occlusion. This procedure plugs the tiny drain holes in the inner corner of the eye, which slows down the drainage of tears, helping them accumulate and moisten the eye.

Dry mouth can be more difficult to treat. It's helpful to drink plenty of liquids throughout the day. Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on hard candy can stimulate saliva production. Saliva substitutes can be sprayed into the mouth. Because bacteria thrive when saliva levels are low, it's important to brush and floss daily, use a fluoride-based toothpaste, gel, or rinse; and have regular dental checkups.

In severe cases, medications such as pilocarpine (Salagen) or cevimeline (Evoxac) may be taken to ease dry mouth.