July 23rd is World Sjögren’s Day. It’s named after Dr. Henrik Sjögren (pronounced SHOW-grin), the Swedish ophthalmologist who noticed a connection between patients he was seeing with dry eyes, and patients who suffered from a consistently dry mouth. Further investigation resulted in the discovery that these symptoms where caused by an immune system attack on these patients’ moisture-producing glands. Today, approximately 4 million Americans live with this chronic disease, and many more go undiagnosed. Let’s look at the symptoms, and learn more about this disease that causes more than just the occasional parched mouth.
What is Sjögren’s?
Sjögren’s is a chronic autoimmune inflammatory disease in which a person’s white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands. It is much more than just a dry mouth, but a dry mouth and eyes are hallmark symptoms as well as fatigue and joint pain. It been known to cause problems with other organs such as the kidneys, gastrointestinal system, blood vessels, lungs, liver, pancreas, and the central nervous system. Most of us have never heard of Sjogren’s, but some may have heard about it from world tennis star, Venus Williams, who discovered she had the disease in 2011.
Sjögren’s is often misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all. This is a concern for medical professionals involved in diagnosing and caring for Sjögren’s patients. The diagnosis isn’t typically made until someone with Sjögren’s has been suffering with symptoms for 4.7 years on average. This often leads Sjögren’s patients to experience complications related to the disease like cavities, oral thrush, and vision problems.
When does it develop? Can kids be affected?
Sjögren’s can develop at any time. It affects women more commonly than men, and (while rare) can also affect children.
If I have Sjögren’s, does my dentist need to know?
Dr. Nawiesniak plays an important role in the management of Sjögren’s. Patients with this disease have a higher rate of decay because they don’t have adequate amounts of saliva to break down sugars and starches in the mouth. Severe dry mouth and an increased incidence of cavities may alert him to the possibility of Sjögren’s. He may be the first person to suggest that a patient see a specialist to rule out the disease.
For more on the importance of saliva, and how it affects teeth and overall health, read perhaps the best article on saliva you’ll ever read in your life, on the European Food and Information Council’s website. Saliva is indeed, amazing stuff!