What is Sjogren's Syndrome?
As mentioned earlier, Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects the exocrine glands of the body. An autoimmune disease is the one in which the body fails to distinguish between foreign cells and body cells. Due to this, there is production of antibodies that mistakenly attack and destroy specific cells and tissues of the body.
Exocrine glands are those glands which produce non-hormonal secretions into an external environment with the help of ducts. These glands include salivary glands, lacrimal glands (tear glands), etc. There is inflammation of these glands, which hampers their normal functioning, leading to decreased production of tears, saliva and other such secretions.
One of the primary symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome is dry mouth. Although there may be many dry mouth reasons, Sjogren's syndrome is one of the most difficult to deal with. As the antibodies that are produced in this condition attack and destroy cells of the exocrine glands, there is destruction of cells of the salivary glands. Due to this, there is less, or in severe cases, no production of saliva. This leads to dry mouth, difficulty in swallowing, chewing and speaking, as all these are the lubricating functions of saliva.
The saliva has many important functions. One of the main functions, besides lubrication, is that saliva helps fight tooth decay. This is done in two ways - firstly, the continuous flow and swishing of saliva does not allow the bacteria and other caries causing pathogens to stay on the tooth surface for long. Secondly, saliva contains many antibacterial compounds, like thiocyanate, hydrogen peroxide and immunoglobulin A. All these compounds further help fight and prevent dental caries. Along with dental caries, there may also be other periodontal diseases and gum diseases.
Swollen Salivary Glands
One of the most important symptoms is swollen salivary glands. Not only are the salivary glands swollen, which may make them reach double their size due to their attempt to try to fight off the inflammation, but they are also tender on palpation. The person often has a visible swelling near the corner of the mouth, due to swelling of the parotid gland, which is painful in nature, mimicking mumps symptoms.
One of the other primary symptoms is dry eyes. Due to the cells of the lacrimal glands getting destroyed by the antibodies, there is a deficiency in the production of tears. This causes a lot of problems, like severe irritation, very dry and scratchy eyes, along with corneal ulceration and increased susceptibility to other eye problems.
Dry Nose and Throat
Secondary symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome also include dryness of nose, throat and lungs. This leads to increased coughing, hoarseness of voice, epistaxis (nosebleeds), etc. It also increases the susceptibility of a person to respiratory and lung diseases like pneumonia and bronchitis.
Due to decreased activity of the sebaceous and sweat glands, the skin also becomes dry and scaly. Dry skin causes irritation and increased susceptibility to other skin diseases as well. There may also be vaginal dryness, which may leave the vagina insufficiently lubricated, causing difficulty and pain during intercourse.
Depression and Fatigue
Due to the continuous untoward changes in the body, most patients may complain of irritability, and may even go into depression. The person may complain of weakness and fatigue as well. It leads to the patient getting trapped in a vicious cycle of lack of enthusiasm for any activity, followed by a bout of depression. Thus, patient education about the various symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome is very important, to ensure that the patient's morale isn't dimmed due to this disease.
Certain changes in visceral organs may also be noted, like abnormal liver function tests and autoimmune hepatitis. There may also be impaired functioning of other glands, due to overall decreased secretions. Thus, there may be digestive distress and other related problems of the gastrointestinal tract.
Treatment for Sjogren's Syndrome
As indicated by the title above, unfortunately, Sjogren's syndrome is a disease where only the symptoms can be treated, not the disease. As is the case with most autoimmune disorders, the exact etiology of Sjogren's syndrome is not known. Hence, only measures can be taken to mitigate the severity of the symptoms. The most disturbing of all symptoms, that is, dry mouth, can easily be dealt with, with the help of a few simple dry mouth remedies.
For this, you can use certain artificial oral lubricants that are easily available, but are not very satisfactory. While most people prefer to simply gargle and rinse their mouth often, especially after a meal, some use water sprays to make up for the deficient saliva. Certain dietary modifications, like intake of soft food, may help in dry mouth treatment.
For treating dry eyes, one can make use of certain dry eyes medications, which will help in reducing the irritation of eyes. These eye drops will also help keep eye diseases and other eye problems at bay, especially corneal ulceration and other such serious eye problems. There are certain artificial tear preparations also available to treat dry eyes, although some of these have preservatives that may irritate the eye, so it is best to try out certain brands and see which one suits you the best. There are certain lubricating ointments available, for people who don't wish to use eye drops.
Thus, although Sjogren's syndrome symptoms may be varied and not very easy to treat, with the help of a little bit of cooperation and understanding between the doctor and the patient, the symptoms can be mitigated to an extent where the person can lead a normal life. Most patients who are diagnosed with this syndrome are often alarmed and in a state of panic. Thus, patient education is a very important step, as this will aid in proper and complete diagnosis and treatment of this syndrome.