Immunosuppression Definition, Complications, and Treatment

When medications compromise the immune system

Immunosuppression is an impaired ability of the immune system to fight infection or other diseases.

An individual is said to be immunosuppressed if they have an immunodeficiency disorder due to medicines that weaken the immune system (such as corticosteroids). Immunosuppression is also a common side effect of chemotherapy given to treat cancer.

A white blood cell

How Immunosuppression Works

The immune system helps protect your body from harmful substances called antigens. Antigens are substances that cause the immune system to produce antibodies against it. Examples of antigens include:

  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Toxins
  • Cancer cells
  • Foreign blood or tissues from another person or species.

As your immune system detects these antigens, antibodies are produced to destroy them while certain white blood cells swallow and destroy bacteria and other foreign substances. Proteins called complement help with this process.

When your immune system has difficulty producing antibodies or if the special white blood cells called T or B lymphocytes (or both) do not function normally, you may be diagnosed with an immunodeficiency disorder.

An immunodeficiency disorder due to medications (in individuals that are given medicines which weaken immune systems) is referred to as immunosuppression. Also referred to as immunocompromised or immune deficiency, some of the causes of immunosuppression include:

  • Medications are deliberately given to someone who is about to have a bone marrow or organ transplant to prevent rejection of the donor tissue
  • A side effect of chemotherapy medications used to treat cancer
  • Corticosteroid medications like prednisone and Medrol (methylprednisolone)
  • Inherited diseases like agammaglobulinemia
  • Acquired diseases like HIV/AIDS
  • Other conditions like removal of the spleen, increasing age, diabetes, and malnutrition

Complications of Immunosuppression

Some possible complications caused by the lowered immune response of immunosuppression are frequent or ongoing illness, an increased risk of infection, and an increased risk of certain cancers or tumors.

Be sure to contact your healthcare provider immediately if you are on chemotherapy or corticosteroids (such as prednisone, Medrol, or Decadron) and you develop the following symptoms:

  • Fever higher than 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Cough and shortness of breath
  • Stomach pain
  • Repeated yeast infections or oral thrush
  • Stiff neck and headache with fever (go to the emergency room)

How to Treat Immunodeficiency Disorders

Preventing infections and treating any disease and infections that develop from a lowered immune system is the only goal of treatment for immunosuppression.

Individuals with a weakened immune system should avoid contact with people who have infections or contagious disorders. Avoiding people who have been vaccinated with live virus vaccines within the past 2 weeks is highly recommended.

If an infection develops, your healthcare provider may suggest aggressive treatment for the infection by recommending the following treatments:

  • Long-term use of antibiotics or antifungal medications along with preventive (prophylactic) treatments may be suggested by your healthcare provider.
  • Viral infections and some types of cancer may require an immunostimulant drug like Interferon, as it is a medicine that improves immune system function.
  • HIV or AIDS patients may take combinations of drugs to improve immunity and reduce the amount of HIV in the immune system.
  • Vaccines against bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae should be administered 2 weeks before planned surgeries.
  • Certain immunodeficiency conditions may require a bone marrow transplant.

Fortunately, immunosuppression caused by medications often goes away once you stop taking the prescribed medication. Always follow the instructions of your healthcare provider and do not stop taking any of your prescribed medication unless advised to do so by your practitioner.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • "Immunosuppression." Mosby's Medical, Nursing, and Allied Health Dictionary. 6th ed. New York: Mosby, 2002: 872.
  • Schwarz, Thomas. "Immunology." Dermatology. 2nd. Ed. Jean Bolognia. New York: Mosby, 2008: 63-75.

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.