Sand in your eyes and cotton in your mouth? There’s a name for what you might be experiencing. Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that most commonly affects the lacrimal and salivary glands, which create moisture for the eyes and mouth, respectively. Sjögren’s syndrome causes a reduction in the production of saliva and tears, leading to uncomfortable dryness in the mouth and eyes.
There’s no known singular cause for Sjögren’s syndrome, but researchers believe that a combination of environmental and genetic factors determines who develops the disease. While there are certain genes that increase a person’s risk for Sjögren’s syndrome, the genes do not act alone. It is believed that in order for a person to develop Sjögren’s, the immune system must be activated by some sort of trigger – such as a viral or bacterial infection – that sends the immune system into overdrive.
Evidence also suggests that if someone in your family has Sjögren’s syndrome, you’re at higher risk for it. In fact, approximately 12 percent of people with Sjögren’s syndrome have one or more relatives with the disease. It's also common for relatives of people with Sjögren’s syndrome to develop some other type of autoimmune disease such as lupus or hypothyroidism.
Approximately 4 million Americans have Sjögren’s syndrome, making it among the most prevalent autoimmune disorders. Though it can affect people of either gender or at any age, nine out of 10 people living with Sjögren’s syndrome are women, most of them diagnosed in their 40s. In fact, a major risk factor for developing Sjögren’s syndrome is being a post-menopausal woman.
While there isn’t yet a concrete answer as to why Sjögren’s syndrome affects women at such a higher rate than men, researchers believe the hormone estrogen might play a role. Another risk factor for Sjögren’s is the presence of other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. In rare cases, even children can have Sjögren’s syndrome.