Immune System Disorders and Diseases

Diseases of Poor Immunity, Atopic Disease, and Autoimmune Conditions

Your immune system does an important job protecting you from serious infections. It has many complex components, activated in different ways to kill bacteria, viruses, and other potential invaders. Different problems with the immune system can lead to a variety of medical issues. 

If your immune system is weakened in some way, it may not be able to fight off some infections. This can happen from a genetic problem present from birth that causes part of your immune system to not work normally. Certain later medical problems can also cause a weakened immune system.

Sometimes the immune system may become inappropriately active in response to something in the environment. That can lead to issues like food allergies, eczema, allergic asthma, and others.

Other times the immune system might get inappropriately activated against a part of your own body. These are called autoimmune disorders. Symptoms and the nature of the autoimmune disorder depend on the part of the body that gets attacked.

This article will discuss some of these major problems with the immune system and the disorders that can result. 

Woman with painful hand

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Immune System Disorders Causing Poor Immunity

Some types of immune system problems mean that you won't be able to fight off infections as easily. These can be divided into primary and secondary immune system disorders.

Primary Immune System Disorders

Primary immune system disorders are rare genetic problems that you inherit from your parents. They affect different parts of your immune system and so may all cause slightly different patterns and severity of symptoms.

Around 200 different rare disorders fall into this category. A few examples are:

Some of these primary immune deficiencies also seem to increase the risk of certain kinds of cancers and certain autoimmune diseases. 

Secondary (Acquired) Immune Deficiency Disorders

Unlike primary immune system disorders, these are not present genetically from birth. A key example is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) caused by untreated transmission with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). AIDS makes a person prone to life-threatening infections that unaffected people can fight off easily. 

Other kinds of medical conditions might make one more prone to getting certain infections, although not to this degree. These medical conditions include:

People taking certain medications that block the immune system, called immunosuppressants, are also more prone to getting certain infections. This applies to some people getting cancer treatment, for example.

Older adults also tend to have a poorer immune response compared to young, healthy adults, which can make them more prone to serious infections.

Atopic Immune System Problems

Atopic diseases are another group of conditions caused by problems with your immune system. People with these diseases have a predisposition to produce abnormally large amounts of certain antibodies—protective proteins produced by the immune system—in response to specific triggers. 

People with these diseases have an exaggerated reaction to certain substances in the environment, such as pollen, dust mites, and food allergens. This causes the overactive release of a particular antibody type called IgE (immunoglobulin E) and related immune system changes. Ultimately, this causes the symptoms of these conditions.

Some key examples of atopic immune system problems are:

  • Eczema (atopic dermatitis): Causing itchy rash
  • Asthma: Airway inflammation that causes wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Hay fever (allergic rhinitis): Causing drippy rose and red eyes
  • Food allergies: Causing rash and potentially constricted airways

Inheriting certain genes makes you more likely to develop one or more of these conditions, but unknown environmental factors may also play a role.

Autoimmune Problems

A third group of problems related to the immune system are autoimmune diseases, which may affect 3%–5% of people. In these diseases, part of your immune system starts to abnormally attack a portion of your own body. 

For example, some of your immune cells might inappropriately form antibodies to a protein that is part of your own body. Different parts of the body get abnormally targeted in different types of autoimmune diseases. This leads to pain, inflammation, and poor organ function in those areas.

Scientists have described nearly 100 different autoimmune disorders. Some of the more common ones are:

Autoimmune Disease Causes and Risk Factors

Autoimmune diseases occur because of different complicated reasons that aren’t fully understood. 

For most autoimmune diseases, the genes that you inherit from your parents are important, but not everything. In contrast to a condition like a primary immunological disorder, one identical twin might get an autoimmune disorder, but the other may not, although their risk is greatly increased.

Environmental factors seem to play a role as well, though researchers don’t fully understand these. Some factors that might be involved are:

  • Certain previous infections (e.g., from rheumatic fever)
  • Previous damage to the area
  • Nutrition factors (e.g., low vitamin D levels or exposure to gluten)
  • Exposure to toxins (like cigarette smoke)
  • Lack of healthy bacteria in your gut

All these differences might play a role in the immune system inappropriately targeting and attacking part of your body. 

Autoimmune Disorders and Biological Sex

Most autoimmune disorders are also more common in cisgender women than in cisgender men, although some are not. For example, lupus is 9 times more common in women compared to men. Researchers aren’t sure why this is the case. But it may have to do with the ways hormones like estrogen interact with the immune system.

Learn more: Why Are Autoimmune Diseases More Common in Women?

Having More Than One Immune Problem

Unfortunately, some people have more than one kind of problem with their immune system. For example, people with one kind of autoimmune disease have an increased chance of getting another kind of autoimmune disease. 

The same is true for people with atopic types of immune problems, who often have more than one kind. And some people with primary immune system problems have problems with autoimmune-related diseases. 

Additionally, some treatments used for atopic immune disease and for autoimmune problems are immunosuppressants. That means that your immune system may not fight off certain infections as well as normal while you are taking them. 

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnosis of immune-related problems can be tricky. In some cases, symptoms might be subtle, and they may wax and wane with time. Some immune-related problems also have similar, overlapping symptoms. 

For many immune-related problems, there isn’t one single test that can prove that you have the condition. Instead, your clinician pulls together the clinical picture from your symptoms, your medical history, your exam, and related tests. Sometimes these diseases can only be diagnosed after ruling out other potential causes.

The tests needed will depend upon your symptoms and your overall medical picture. Some potential tests might include:

If autoimmune disease is suspected, your healthcare provider might recommend tests for antibodies that your body has made against itself. For example, your healthcare provider might recommend a rheumatoid factor test if your symptoms indicate you might have rheumatoid arthritis. But this test is sometimes positive in other autoimmune conditions as well.

One initial screening test is antinuclear antibody (ANA), which may be positive in several different autoimmune conditions. If that is positive, your clinician might recommend additional antibody tests, depending on the clinical picture. 

Depending on the context, you might need imaging tests or other assessments, like X-rays, biopsies (taking samples of tissue for testing in a lab), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). 

When to Seek Medical Attention

If something seems off in your body, trust your instincts and get it checked out. If you have new symptoms, like increased fatigue and joint pain, don't hesitate to get an assessment. You are the person who knows your body best. 

Keeping Track of Symptoms

Particularly for symptoms that change over time, it can be helpful to keep a record you can share with your clinician. Pictures of the affected area can also give your healthcare provider a better sense of how you have been doing. 

For symptoms that might indicate an infection, like fever, see a healthcare provider promptly. For any life-threatening symptoms, like sudden difficulty breathing, call 911. 

Summary

Your immune system exists to protect you from serious infections. Problems with the immune system can lead to a variety of medical issues, including atopic diseases and autoimmune disorders.

Sometimes the immune system becomes inappropriately active in response to something in the environment, which can cause an atopic disease. Common atopic diseases are asthma, eczema. hay fever, and food allergies.

The immune system might be inappropriately activated against a part of your own body. These are called autoimmune disorders. Common autoimmune disorders are rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, psoriatic arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease.

A variety of genetic and environmental factors can cause an immune system disorder. If you are experiencing symptoms of any of these conditions, your healthcare provider can help you determine what is happening and offer the best course of treatment for you.

A Word From Verywell

It may take a while to get a correct diagnosis when you have an immune system disorder, especially if you have subtle and changing symptoms. Try to be patient, but don’t give up on finding answers.

The good news is that treatments are better than ever for many of these conditions. With perseverance, you and your healthcare provider will soon figure out the best way to manage your issues. 

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