Living with Sjogren's syndrome
Pronounced "Show-grins," Sjogren's syndrome often flies under the radar. With a foreign name and tricky-to-diagnose symptoms (since it mimics other diseases), most Americans have no idea what the condition entails or that they might be suffering from it.
Do your eyes and mouth feel like sandpaper?
Sjogren's is a chronic autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your own body. It aims for the mucous membranes and moisture-producing glands first, resulting in its two main symptoms: dry mouth and dry eyes. The decreased production of saliva is a direct shot at oral health, among other things. The lubricant is a crucial component in the mechanics of your mouth, dental hygiene and digestive tract.
You've drooled while sleeping (don't deny it) and you may have even spit on the sidewalk. But what exactly makes up the liquid that leaves your mouth? Saliva is 98 percent water. The other two percent is a mixture of enzymes (lysozyme, amylase, lingual lipase), mucus, electrolytes (calcium, sodium, potassium), and antibacterial compounds.
Saliva plays a crucial role in getting digestion started. The enzymes start breaking down food, helping moisten the throat to make swallowing easier. People with Sjogren don't have that simple yet important luxury of keeping the mouth moist. It is something we almost always overlook - eating food sometimes feels involuntary.
The other crucial function of saliva is that it helps clean the mouth and teeth. The water in it washes down food particles and rinses the enamel. For all the kids, that is not an excuse to skip brushing your teeth. It is your body's natural response to help fight dental plaque.
As a side effect from Sjogren's, patients might experience halitosis, or bad breath, due to dry mouth. With dry mouth syndrome, stray food bits are allowed to remain stuck on the teeth, creating a repugnant odor in your mouth.
Bad breath is likely the easiest part of the problem to treat. Alcohol-free mouthwash, chewing gum that contains xylitol, drinking plenty of water and brushing and flossing regularly are all good ways to get rid of bad breath.
It may also influence more significant aspects of oral hygiene, which can lead to dental problems. Severe dry mouth is known to cause chronic tooth decay. In the case of Cathy Reppenhagen, who has been living with Sjogren's syndrome for 15 years, her dentists could not figure out what was wrong. She had constant tooth problems, yet once she was able to diagnose the condition, things became easier to manage.
Unfortunately, the disease has a much wider scope than that. While primary Sjogren's syndrome concerns only dry mouth and dry eyes without another additional autoimmune disorder, secondary Sjogren's syndrome is paired with another condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, polymyositis and systemic lupus erythematosus. It may affect other parts of the body, like the lungs and kidneys.
Nine out of 10 patients who are diagnosed with this autoimmune disorder are women. It affects almost 4 million Americans, and most are over the age of 40. Although it can occur in younger people, it is rare.
Irma Rodriguez, 62 years old, has been dealing with symptoms of the disease for over a decade.
"This is a disease that I don't look sick," Rodriguez explained to the New York Times. "You look at me and I look fine. And you'll see me being very active. So, an autoimmune disease doesn't have a particular face for each patient."
Despite its difficulties and fatigue onset, Sjogren's syndrome has not held Rodriguez back. She is an executive for the Coca-Cola Company, works full weeks and is very successful.
What to look out for
• Constant dry sensation in the mouth
• Difficulty eating or swallowing
• Loss of sense of taste
• Stringy saliva
• Itching eyes
• Joint pain