Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease. Instead of the white blood cells helping to fight off disease, the defenders behave like an enemy within that causes damage to the cells of the salivary and tear glands. Although the condition can be severe, severity varies from one individual to another. The most extreme forms of Sjogren's syndrome adversely affect quality of life in many ways, but more minor forms are irritating more than debilitating. The condition affects an estimated four million people in the USA, with women making up 90%.
Dry eyes are one of the most noticeable symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome. The tear glands become inflamed and damaged, leading to the production of fewer tears. In this situation, the eyes start to sting or itch, often described as similar to having sand in the eyes. Often, they also become reddish, and the eyelids swell. Some individuals also experience blurred vision and heightened light sensitivity.
A dry mouth is another common symptom of this condition, caused by similar factors as dry eyes. As well as inflaming the tear glands to reduce the supply of tears, the disease also inflames the saliva glands and eventually destroys them, leading to dry mouth and lips. The dry-mouth feeling may differ from the sensation one feels after drinking too little water on a hot day. The individual may find their tongue sticks to the roof of their mouth or is unusually red. Some people notice hoarseness and changes in how foods taste. There are a number of medical causes for dry mouth, however, including diabetes.
People with Sjogren's syndrome often have major dental health issues. As well as aiding in the digestion of food, antimicrobial agents in saliva help protect the teeth against decay. A lack of sufficient saliva contributes to dental problems. In particular, the teeth of people with this illness tend to decay more quickly than those of healthy people and are more prone to receding gums, oral thrush, and mouth ulcers. Also, oral thrush infections are likely to happen. A dentist is often involved in the diagnosis of Sjogren's syndrome.
Joint and muscle pain felt by people with Sjogren's syndrome is difficult to distinguish from that experienced by people with rheumatoid arthritis, making diagnosis difficult. Studies show it can take as long as three years before the doctors confidently determine an individual has Sjogren's syndrome as opposed to a more common health problem such as arthritis. Sometimes, the syndrome is occurs in conjunction with a second autoimmune disease, further complicating diagnosis.
Gland inflammation is one of the most characteristic elements of Sjogren's syndrome and leads to swelling on several parts of the body. In particular, doctors check for swollen glands around the neck, but they also develop on the face, armpits, and groin. Dentists will notice this swelling in the parotid glands on either side of the mouth and in front of the ears.
The progress of the disease may cause the kidneys, heart, liver, and other essential organs to become inflamed, which can lead to low-grade fevers and night sweats. This is another symptom that could indicate many different conditions and therefore signifies to doctors that a patient is unwell, but does not necessarily point to Sjogren's syndrome.
Sjogren's syndrome can leave people feeling physically fatigued and unable to carry out regular, day-to-day activities. This symptom often lasts a long time, but can also come and go. Whether related to this physical fatigue or separate, some people also report difficulty concentrating.
Another common symptom of Sjogren's syndrome is a dry cough that may worsen when there is excess dust or irritants in the air, or during cold weather. Even being in an air-conditioned room may provoke a cough.
As people get older, they may naturally experience shortness of breath, but this is yet another symptom of Sjogren’s syndrome. Again, breathing difficulties are symptomatic of many other conditions and may delay the diagnosis of Sjogren’s syndrome while the doctor rules out other possible causes.
Though we often think more of sudden weight gain, unexpected or unexplained weight loss is also a signal of poor health. Sjogren's syndrome, like many conditions, can cause sudden weight loss, in part because the body is always working so hard to fend off illnesses a healthy immune system would not have trouble fighting. Unexplained weight loss should indicate a need for medical attention.
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