Sometimes you can’t tell whether the symptoms you’re experiencing are due to menopause or some other health issue. For instance, there’s Sjögren’s syndrome. It turns out that this condition, which affects four million Americans, most commonly shows up in women in their late 40s and can mimic some of the symptoms of going through this transitional change. And while this syndrome can occur in men, it’s nine times more likely to happen to women.
The Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation (SSF) defines this syndrome as "a chronic autoimmune disease in which a person’s white blood cells attack his or her moisture-producing glands." NIH News in Health said this disease often causes long-lasting, comfortable dryness in the eyes and mouth as well as fatigue or joint pain or swelling. This disease, in some cases, also can attack internal organs. It also can concur with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, which are other diseases in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body.
Because this disease has such a varied form of attack and symptoms can be very subtle, the diagnosis may take a long time. "Sjögren’s syndrome often is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome may mimic those of menopause, drug side effects, allergies, or medical conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and multiple sclerosis, the SSF website states. "Because all symptoms are not always present at the same time and because Sjögren’s can involve several body systems, physicians, eye care providers and dentists sometimes treat each symptom individually and do not recognize that a systemic disease is present. The average time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis is 6.5 years."
If Sjögren’s syndrome is diagnosed early enough and treated, the condition is not generally fatal, according to the SSF. However, people with this syndrome must be monitored to identify whether other issues are arising, such as involvement of internal organs, emergence of related autoimmune diseases and other complications. "In particular, patients should be aware that the incidence of lymphomas (cancer of the lymph nodes) is significantly higher in people with Sjögren’s compared to the general population," the SSF website states.
Several tests are used to make the diagnosis because medical personnel need to find out if saliva-producing cells are being attacked by the body’s immune system. These tests include:
- Measuring tear and saliva flow
- Blood tests
- Biopsies, in which a small saliva-producing gland is removed from the lip and analyzed under the microscope.
This disease potentially can affect many parts of the body. "Since so many of the body’s systems can be affected, people with Sjögren’s syndrome often need to see several specialists," the NIH News in Health reported. "These can include an ophthalmologist for the eyes, an oral disease specialist or a dentist who has experience with dry mouth, and a rheumatologist, who can manage and coordinate care."
SSF notes that while there is no cure for this syndrome, treatments may help with symptoms and prevent complications. Over the counter medication are available to help with dry eyes and dry mouth. In addition, some patients receive prescriptions for medications to assist with the disease’s attack on internal organs and other types of flare-ups caused by the disease. There are some lifestyle decisions you can make if you have this syndrome. For instance, you may find that avoiding spicy foods, alcohol, wine and acidic juices, fruits and vegetables may be helpful In addition, soft, smooth foods may be helpful. "Check with your physician for other suggestions but also listen to your own body," the SSF website states. "Do what feels right. Not everyone has the same issues with food, so eat what you can tolerate and avoid those items you cannot."
NIH News in Health. (March 2012). “Dry eyes and mouth? You may have Sjögren’s syndrome.” Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health.
Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation. (2001). Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation website. Bethesda, MD: Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.