Autoimmune diseases are a bit like buses. You wait bleeding years to be diagnosed with one, and then several roll up at once. Sjögren’s Syndrome (pronounced Show-grin’s) is one such bus. It’s often to be found hanging around with bigger, nastier members of the autoimmune disorder family, such as Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Anything ‘autoimmune’ basically means that instead of protecting the body from infection or illness, the immune system reacts abnormally and starts attacking healthy cells and tissue. In the case Sjögren’s, the body’s immune system attacks glands that secrete fluid, such as the tear and saliva glands.
This shortage of crucial moisture leads to the two main symptoms: dry eyes and dry mouth. For women (who account for about 90% of all Sjögren’s cases) dryness can also be something of an issue ‘down below’. Yup, when it rains it really pours. OK, probably not the best analogy to use in a case like this.
In more serious cases of Sjögren’s Syndrome, the immune system goes one better and attacks other parts of the body as well. Symptoms include muscle pain, joint pain, stiffness and swelling, vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels) and brain fog (difficulty concentrating, remembering and reasoning). The two worst symptoms (personally speaking) are the crippling chronic fatigue and joint pain. Though to be honest it’s hard to know these days which of my symptoms are coming from the Sjögren’s and which from the Lupus.
While it’s not a killer, having bone dry eyeballs can have a major impact on day-to-day life. If nothing else, it can make you look even more bloodshot and bleary-eyed than normal. Sometimes my eyes get so dry it feels like my vision in completely blurred, even though I can still see perfectly. It’s a horrible feeling, and I find myself constantly pulling my eyelids down to try and ‘shift’ the haze.
The symptoms of dry eyes can be made worse by sitting around in air-conditioning, sharing airspace with a smoker or walking outside in the wind. Travelling on an aeroplane can be sheer hell. Watching TV or staring at a bright computer screen for any length of time (like I’m doing right now) can also become painful. I think this has something to do with not blinking as much and the eyeballs drying out quicker – but don’t quote me on that.
Having a dry mouth is every bit as annoying. It can make your tongue feel like an abandoned flip-flop in the Sahara Desert. No matter how much you swallow or how much water (or whisky or wine) you drink, you’re still parched. This makes your mouth and tongue feel horrible and your lips dry and cracked. It also makes it difficult to swallow. I constantly feel the need to clear my throat or cough up a mucousy fur ball. At times I sound like a retching dog who’s been eating too much grass. Yes, pleasant I know.
Another frustrating knock-on effect from needing to drink all this extra water is the constant need to wee. It’s a standing joke in our family that I will need to go at least twice before I leave the house and then within seconds of the engine being switched off. Lazy muscles after popping out two children don’t help. I’m probably just one violent coughing fit off using Tena Lady.