A mouth that feels like it's full of cotton or eyes that feel gritty and burn. For many people with Sjögren's syndrome, these are the extent of their symptoms. But for others, dry mouth and eyes are just the beginning.

A disease in which the immune system attacks and damages the body's moisture-producing glands, Sjögren’s can cause dryness of skin and mucous membranes. Dry skin may itch and crack. Dry vaginal tissues may make intercourse painful. A dry throat may make it hard to swallow.

Sjögren’s can also affect other parts of the body. Patients may experience pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints, rashes on the arms and legs related to vasculitis – an inflammation of tiny blood vessels. The lungs, liver and kidneys may become inflamed; some people develop tingling and numbness in the limbs because of neurological involvement.

The syndrome was identified in 1933 by Swedish ophthalmologist Henrik Sjögren, who observed that a large number of his female patients were experiencing dry eyes and mouths, along with their arthritis symptoms. That Dr. Sjögren noticed more women with the condition is not surprising – of the 1 to 4 million people in the U.S. who have the disease, 90 percent are women. Most develop it after age 40.

The disease is classified either as primary Sjögren’s, meaning it exists entirely by itself, or secondary Sjögren’s, meaning it can develop in conjunction with another connective tissue disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or lupus.

Sjögren’s Symptoms and Signs

In addition to dryness of the eyes and mouth, which are known as sicca syndrome, and are the most common indicators of Sjögren’s, symptoms can occur in any part of the body. Here are a few more to look for:

Eyes

  • Itching eyes
  • Feeling something is in the eye

Mouth and throat

  • Difficulty swallowing or eating
  • Loss of sense of taste
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Thick or stringy saliva
  • Mouth sores or pain
  • Hoarseness

Systemic

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Change in color of hands or feet
  • Joint pain or swelling
  • Swollen glands

How is Sjögren’s Diagnosed?

Diagnosing Sjögren’s syndrome is often no easy matter. The average time between onset of symptoms and diagnosis is six years. Symptoms rarely develop rapidly, but tend to evolve over a period of months or years, and are not always present when the patient first visits a rheumatologist or other healthcare provider.