May 24, 2023 4 min read
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body's immune system accidentally attacks healthy cells. The prefix “auto” has a basic meaning of “self” so autoimmune refers to a condition where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself and not foreign invading bodies or unhealthy cells.
Autoimmune diseases pose a serious health issue across the United States. According to a study that was published in 2016, more than 23 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune condition.
These diseases can affect all parts of the body including your oral health. Although the impact of autoimmune disorders on overall health has been well-documented, their impacts in the oral area are frequently neglected. In this article, we will explore autoimmune disease and their impact on your oral health by discussing their common oral manifestations.
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body's immune system, responsible for safeguarding against harmful microorganisms, malfunctions. Normally, the immune system identifies and eliminates foreign invaders like harmful bacteria and viruses, in order to keep us healthy. However, in cases of autoimmune diseases, this defense mechanism messes up and mistakenly target and attack the very cells they should protect.
These conditions can be classified into two main types: organ-specific and non-organ-specific autoimmune diseases. Organ-specific diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and pernicious anemia, involve the autoimmune process taking place within a particular organ or tissue. On the other hand, non-organ-specific diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, manifest with autoimmune activity occurring throughout the body.
The prevalence of autoimmune disorders is striking, with over 100 identified conditions affecting a staggering 24 million people. If you find yourself living with an autoimmune disease, it is crucial to remember that you are not alone in this journey.
How do Autoimmune Diseases Affect Oral Health?
So, what are the oral signs of an autoimmune disease? The oral manifestations of autoimmune diseases can vary widely depending on the specific condition, but here are some common examples:
Sjögren's Syndrome affects the salivary glands and lacrimal (tear) glands, leading to dry mouth (xerostomia) and dry eyes. The decreased saliva production can result in difficulty swallowing, altered taste perception, increased dental caries, oral infections, and a burning sensation in the mouth.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
SLE can cause various oral manifestations, including oral ulcers, which are often painless and occur on the palate or buccal mucosa. Other oral symptoms may include red or white patches, swelling, and bleeding gums. SLE can also cause temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain and muscle stiffness, leading to difficulty in opening or closing the mouth.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
RA is a chronic inflammatory disorder that primarily affects the joints but can also cause oral manifestations. Patients with RA may experience temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), leading to jaw pain, limited jaw movement, and difficulty chewing. They may also have an increased risk of periodontal (gum) disease and tooth loss.
This rare autoimmune condition can cause multiple oral symptoms, including painful oral ulcers, similar to those seen in SLE. These ulcers can be large and deep, affecting the tongue, lips, and buccal mucosa. Behçet's disease can also lead to inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis), which can affect oral tissues and result in swelling, redness, and pain.
Pemphigus vulgaris is a blistering autoimmune disorder that affects the skin and mucous membranes, including the oral cavity. It causes painful, shallow ulcers that can rupture easily, leaving behind raw, painful areas. These ulcers can be widespread and affect the tongue, gums, palate, and buccal mucosa. If left untreated, pemphigus vulgaris can result in severe oral complications and compromise oral function.
Oral Lichen Planus
Lichen planus is a chronic inflammatory condition that can affect the skin, nails, and mucous membranes, including the oral cavity. Oral lichen planus typically presents as white, lacy patches (reticular form) or painful, erosive ulcers (erosive form) on the buccal mucosa, tongue, and gums. It can cause discomfort, sensitivity to certain foods, and an increased risk of oral infections.
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Dental Care to Prevent Autoimmune Disease
Maintaining good dental hygiene is essential for overall health, including preventing autoimmune diseases. Here are some dental care practices that can help in preventing autoimmune diseases:
Are autoimmune conditions serious?
Yes, autoimmune conditions can be serious and have varying levels of severity depending on the specific disease and its impact on the body.
Who suffers more from autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune diseases can affect people of any gender, age, or ethnicity. However, certain autoimmune diseases may be more prevalent in specific populations.
How do I test for autoimmune disease?
Testing for autoimmune diseases typically involves a combination of medical history evaluation, physical examination, and specific laboratory tests, such as blood tests, imaging studies, or biopsies, depending on the suspected condition.
What is the first treatment for autoimmune disease?
The initial treatment involves the use of medications to suppress the immune system and control inflammation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be the first treatment used for symptomatic relief in some cases.