Sjögren’s syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disease that mainly affects women older than age 40. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own cells and tissues.
The exact cause of Sjögren’s syndrome is not known. But its main symptoms are: dry eyes and a dry mouth. Other symptoms can include joint pain, swollen salivary glands, skin rashes, dry skin, vaginal dryness, a persistent dry cough, and prolonged fatigue.
Dry eyes and mouth
Autoantibodies (proteins of the immune system that target the body’s own cells) in Sjögren’s syndrome often first attack cells in the glands that produce tears and saliva, causing your eyes and mouth to be chronically dry. This can lead to eye infections, as tears normally wash away debris that can include viruses and bacteria, and cavities, as saliva helps to protect teeth from decay.
Dry eyes often cause itching and blurred vision, and a dry mouth can result in halitosis or bad breath.
The inflammation associated with autoimmune attacks can also cause the salivary glands to swell, especially the glands behind the jaw and in front of the ears.
Abnormal sense of taste and smell
The loss of saliva and nasal fluids can alter a person’s sense of taste and smell, often affecting their enjoyment of daily life. Some patients describe bitter or metallic tastes, for instance. Dry mouth can also lead to “burning mouth syndrome,” whose features are tingling or numbness of the tongue and soreness.
Skin and vaginal dryness
The same autoimmune attack that damages tear and salivary glands also damages cells that produce fluids elsewhere in the body. Dryness of the skin and vagina are two common results of this.
Skin dryness can develop as a purple-to-red rash that does not lighten when pressed. Vaginal dryness commonly causes soreness or itching around the vagina, pain during intercourse, and frequent urinary tract infections.
Joint pain and swelling
After tear and salivary glands, joints are the next most common sites of damage in Sjögren’s syndrome, making joint pain a common symptom. Pain typically occurs in multiple joints at once, over a cycle involving painful “flares” followed by periods of little or no pain.
Inflammatory arthritis most commonly affects the fingers, wrists, and ankles, and appears as tenderness and swelling at those points. Pain may also occur in the shoulders, hips, and knees.
Dryness in the airway leads to a persistent dry cough. This often results in soreness, irritation, an altered sense of taste, difficulty speaking and swallowing, and a general sensation of stickiness in the throat.
The constant autoimmune assault that Sjögren’s syndrome patients experience leads, for some, to prolonged fatigue that can be mental as well as physical. This overwhelming feeling of tiredness is among the most difficult symptoms patients have to cope with.
In an essay, a patient breaks fatigue further down into 13 subtypes, including basic and sudden fatigue, “molten lead phenomenon,” flare-related fatigue, and concentration-impairing brain fog.
Sjögren’s patients can experience an array of symptoms involving the peripheral and central nervous systems. The most common problems are associated with inflammation in the nerves connecting muscles to the spinal cord. These lead to a feeling of numbness or burning, along with weakness and clumsiness.
Damage to the nerves that regulate bodily functions may also occur, leading to problems with blood pressure, temperature control, sweating, digestion, and the bladder.
Last updated: March 30, 2021
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