Why are your eyes and mouth so dry?
Over the past several weeks, you notice that your eyes have been feeling gritty and burning. In addition, your mouth is dry to the point that it’s hard to swallow because you don’t have enough saliva. You decide to go to the doctor to see if they can help you. After running some tests, you find out that you have Sjögren’s syndrome. What is this? Is it treatable?
An autoimmune disorder is when your immune system attacks part of your body. In Sjögren’s syndrome, the first targets are the glands that make tears and saliva. It can also affect your skin, joints, thyroid, kidneys, liver, lungs, and nerves. The reason your body does this isn’t known. However, it’s thought to be related to certain genetic factors that get triggered by an infection from a virus or bacteria. Often, the disorder accompanies other autoimmune conditions, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. While it can present in anyone, it’s more common in women and people over the age of 40.
The most common symptoms are dry, burning, itchy, or gritty feeling eyes and dry mouth that makes it difficult to speak or swallow. If Sjögren’s syndrome impacts other parts of your body, you might have a skin rash, dry skin, joint pain/swelling/stiffness, prolonged fatigue, swollen salivary glands, vaginal dryness, and persistent dry cough. Since the symptoms vary between people and can be similar to other disorders, diagnosing Sjögren’s syndrome is difficult. The condition can also result in several complications. Typically, these involve your eyes and mouth. Due to the dryness in your mouth, you’re more likely to have dental cavities because saliva naturally helps protect your teeth from bacteria that cause them. You’re also more likely to develop oral thrush (a yeast infection in your mouth). When it comes to your eyes, the dryness can cause light sensitivity, blurred vision, and corneal damage. If the condition affects other parts of your body, you could have inflammation in your lungs, kidneys, or liver resulting in pneumonia, bronchitis, kidney failure, hepatitis, or cirrhosis. Some people with Sjögren’s syndrome end up with lymphoma, which is cancer in the lymph nodes. If your nerves end up damaged, you could have peripheral neuropathy that presents as numbness, tingling, and burning in your hands/feet.
Sjögren’s syndrome’s treatment focuses on the parts of the body affected. Most of the time, people can treat dry eyes and mouth at home. For your eyes, using artificial tears, eye lubricants, or both is beneficial. Eye lubricants have a thicker consistency, so it can cause your vision to be blurry. For this reason, many people use them only at night. During the day, artificial tears can keep your eyes moist without altering your vision. Try to increase the humidity indoors and avoid sitting where air is blowing on your face. To help with dry mouth, it’s essential not to smoke and avoid drinking coffee or alcohol since this can make your symptoms worse. It’s a good idea to stay away from acidic beverages, like soda and sports drinks, and sweets since they can harm the enamel on your teeth, raising the risk of developing cavities. To lower your chances of getting cavities, brush and floss after every meal, use topical fluoride treatments or antimicrobial mouthwashes daily, and visit the dentist every six months. To stimulate the production of saliva, try sugarless gum or citrus-flavored hard candies. Another option is to sip on water throughout the day. If these aren’t enough, try using artificial saliva because it lasts longer. You can also use a saline nasal spray because it’ll help your nasal passages stay clear so you can breathe through your nose rather than your mouth, which would cause it to become dry. If you have dry skin, don’t take hot baths or showers because it could worsen your symptoms. In addition, when drying yourself, pat your skin with a towel instead of rubbing. It’s a good idea to apply lotion while your skin is still damp because this will help seal in extra moisture. When washing dishes or using cleaning products, protect your hands by wearing rubber gloves. For women with vaginal dryness, there are vaginal moisturizers and lubricants available to reduce it.
If at-home remedies aren’t working, your doctor can prescribe medications. To decrease eye inflammation, you might need to use cyclosporine or lifitegrast eye drops. To help with saliva production (and tears in some cases), you would take pilocarpine or cevimeline. For oral thrush, you’ll be given antifungal medication. If you’re having arthritis symptoms, you should take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen or naproxen. For those with symptoms that impact their entire body, hydroxychloroquine can provide some relief. Another option is taking methotrexate because it suppresses the immune system. It’s important to note that doing this increases your risk of acquiring infections that your body would typically fight off. If you’re still having eye issues after trying medication, your doctor will probably recommend a minor surgical procedure to seal the ducts that allow tears to drain from your eyes.
Since Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder, there isn’t a way to prevent it. The best thing you can do is to manage your symptoms, so you prevent complications from occurring. If you’re having trouble doing this on your own, be sure to visit your doctor.
Sjögren’s syndrome can be frustrating and challenging to deal with. Once you have it under control, you’ll be able to live your life to the fullest. If you have any questions or concerns about Sjögern’s syndrome, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Sjögren’s Foundation at https://www.sjogrens.org/