The category of autoimmune diseases currently encompasses over 80 different illnesses, which affect more than 20 million Americans. These illnesses can be debilitating and even life threatening. Many of them cause signs and symptoms in the mouth, which is the topic of this week’s blog.
An autoimmune disease is any illness caused by a malfunction of the body’s immune system in which, instead of fighting foreign organisms or unhealthy tissues, it attacks the body’s healthy tissues. In an autoimmune disease, the body essentially turns on itself. When someone has an autoimmune disorder, his or her body is unable to tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy structures or substances.
The causes of autoimmune diseases are unknown. There may be genetic tendencies for some people, placing them at a higher risk for developing certain disorders. Some of the diseases in this category may be sparked by viral infections. Scientists don’t really know.
In many autoimmune diseases, the body is unable to produce the correct enzymes or hormones necessary for normal metabolism and growth. The most common disease of this type is Type I Diabetes. The pancreas is unable to produce the insulin necessary for normal metabolism of carbohydrates. Other autoimmune diseases affect the production of hormones like cortisol and thyroid hormone.
There are also autoimmune diseases that attack specific body parts. For example, rheumatoid arthritis attacks the joints, and Sjögren’s syndrome attacks the salivary and lacrimal glands.
The symptoms you experience with an autoimmune disease vary depending on which specific disorder you have. In general, though, there are some common symptoms when the body’s immune system is malfunctioning. Most people with autoimmune diseases experience unexplained fatigue and generalized pain or achiness. Many also describe a feeling of unease or unwellness. Multiple autoimmune problems cause rashes on the skin.
There are a few autoimmune disorders that specifically attack tissues of the oral cavity. There are other disorders that have an indirect effect on the mouth.
The autoimmune disease with the biggest impact on oral health is Sjögren’s Syndrome. This disease attacks the salivary glands, leading to extreme dry mouth. It also affects the tear glands and leads to extremely dry eyes. Patients with Sjögren’s suffer from a drastically increased risk for cavities, gum disease, and ulcers. Many are unable to chew and swallow normal food from the extreme dryness inside the mouth.
Lichen planus affects the skin and mucous membranes. The mucous membranes are the soft tissues lining the inside of the mouth, nose, eyelids, etc… Patients with lichen planus often experience painful burning or stinging inside the mouth. They may have white patches or lines on the inner cheeks. This inflammatory disorder can make eating and drinking very uncomfortable.
These two disorders share a common root in their names because they cause similar problems in the mouth. Eighty to ninety percent of patients with pemphigus vulgaris develop lesions inside the mouth, and in many cases, the oral lesions are the first sign of the disease. Both pemphigus vulgaris and pemphigoid cause painful blisters, which can burst leaving large ulcers.
In celiac disease, gluten (a prominent ingredient in breads, cakes, cookies, and most things made with flour) causes an inflammatory response. The inflammation in the GI tract leads to poor absorption of other nutrients, and these patients often have concurrent nutritional deficiencies. Patients with celiac disease typically suffer from dry mouth and frequent ulcers. Celiac disease also affects the body’s ability to heal, so these patients may notice that it takes longer than normal to heal from dental surgeries. They have a higher incidence of worsening gum disease due to this poor healing ability, too.
Diabetes affects millions of Americans, and when untreated, it can have disastrous effects on the mouth. Patients with diabetes tend to suffer from dry mouth and gum disease that does not respond well to treatment. Scientists have discovered a link between diabetes and gum disease, which shows that it is almost impossible to control one without controlling the other at the same time. Uncontrolled blood sugar makes it more difficult to control your gum disease, and uncontrolled gum disease actually causes spikes in blood sugar. Patients with diabetes may experience more infections in the mouth and burning mouth syndrome. Many diabetics also notice a change in their ability to taste certain foods.
Learn the steps you can take to fight the effects an Autoimmune disease can have on your oral health.