Autoimmune diseases are disorders caused by a reaction of an individual's immune system to the tissues or organs of the person's own body. Most body parts can be affected by these diseases, and even though treatments exist to control symptoms, there are no cures. Some of these diseases affect the oral cavity and have a negative effect on oral health.
Understanding Autoimmune Diseases
The purpose of the immune system is to defend the body from invading microorganisms. When the immune system attacks the body's own cells and tissues, autoimmune disorders occur. Many of these diseases share symptoms, such as fatigue, dizziness and low-grade fever. Women are at greater risk of acquiring an autoimmune disease than men are because heredity and hormones often play a role in the onset and symptoms of the diseases. Hormonal changes can cause symptoms to change, sometimes for the better but sometimes for the worse. There are oral manifestations of many autoimmune diseases.
Disease That Affects Saliva
Sjögren's syndrome is the second most common autoimmune disease. About 90 percent of the patients are women, and approximately 3 percent of all women over age 50 are affected by the disease. Some instances of Sjögren's syndrome are associated with rheumatoid arthritis. This disease attacks the glands, which leads to dryness of eyes, mouth and other body tissues. People afflicted with the disease may experience trouble eating and swallowing. Some patients' saliva takes on a thick consistency while other patients do not produce saliva at all. Both of these symptoms disturb taste and speech and cause an increase in dental cavities. The tongue may take on a cobblestone-like appearance because of the change in saliva. Patients with Sjögren's syndrome often get a fungal infection, called candidiasis, in the mouth. Good oral hygiene and frequent dental visits are needed to minimize the effects of this disease.
Diseases That Affect the Mouth
Crohn's disease involves the entire GI tract. This disease usually occurs in the patient's 20's and 30's but may also occur later in life in the 60s and 70s. Crohn's disease affects the oral cavity in 8 to 29 percent of the patients who have this disease. The oral symptoms of Crohn's include swelling of the gums, ulcers in the mouth and swelling of the lips. These symptoms can cause eating difficulty and may be among the first of the disease's symptoms to appear.
Systemic lupus erythematosus damages body parts including skin, joints and kidneys. It mostly develops in young women, but it can affect people of either gender at any age. This disease causes fever, weight loss and a butterfly rash across the nose and cheeks. The oral manifestation that is most significant is mouth ulcers; the sores may not cause the patient pain.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease of the skin. It typically develops in a patient's 20's or 30's. The scalp, elbows and knees become affected with scaly white plaques. Although psoriasis is not common in the mouth, oral lesions may occur on the lips, tongue, palate and gums.
Diseases That Affect Swallowing
Hashimoto's disease is an inflammation of the thyroid. It is the most common of diseases that cause an underactive thyroid. Women are more likely to get this disease than men are, and it often occurs at middle age. This disease can cause facial swelling, weakness, fatigue and sensitivity to cold. The throat may swell to such a degree that patients have difficulty swallowing.
Scleroderma causes abnormal growth of connective tissue in the skin and blood vessels and can lead to organ failure. The disease can cause skin to become thick or cause facial skin to become extremely tight. People with this disease may have trouble swallowing.
There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. The number of people with autoimmune disorders is growing, yet many of these diseases are difficult to diagnose. If you experience any of the symptoms described, seek a doctor with experience in treating these types of diseases, and make sure to have frequent dental exams and good oral hygiene to combat or neutralize the negative oral effects of the disease.