What It Means to Be Immunocompromised

How different conditions can lead to an immune deficiency

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A person is said to have an immune deficiency or be immunocompromised when their immune system is incapable of working at full capacity. This is different than being immunocompetent.

Nusha Ashjaee / Verywell

The Immune System

The immune system is how the body fights off diseases and protects itself against new infections. Therefore, someone who is immunocompromised will usually get sick more often, stay sick longer, and be more vulnerable to different types of infections.

Your immune system is responsible for protecting your body against infections. Several organs are part of your immune system, including your spleen, tonsils, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. Together, these organs work together to create immune cells, otherwise known as white blood cells, and antibodies.

There are two complementary systems in the immune system:

  1. Innate immunity
  2. Adaptive immunity

Innate immunity is immunity people are born with. It does not respond to specific pathogens as much as it responds to specific types of threats.

Adaptive immunity is what most people think of when they think of the immune system. This is the part of the immune system that learns to respond to specific antigens—either through exposure to an infection or through vaccination.

Types of Immunodeficiency

Primary immunodeficiency is immunodeficiency you are born with. These types of immunodeficiency can be inherited from generation to generation. They can also occur spontaneously.

In contrast, a secondary immunodeficiency is caused by exposure to something else. This can be a disease, like HIV. It can also be an accident or operation, such as one that damages the spleen.

Most immunodeficiencies affect the adaptive immune system. However innate immunity can also be affected by immunodeficiency.

Immunodeficiency Symptoms

When a person is immunocompromised, they are more susceptible to infections. The major sign of immunodeficiency is getting repeated or serious infections that are rare, or that only cause minor problems, in the general population.

For example, people who are immunocompromised often get more serious and more frequent yeast infections. People living with AIDS are more likely to be diagnosed with rare cancers, such as Kaposi's sarcoma.

There are also degrees of immune deficiency. Some people simply take longer to fight off common infections, whereas others must be protected from any disease exposures because even a normally mild condition could put their life at risk.

Causes

There are many conditions and situations that can lead to a person becoming immunocompromised:

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

Part of the definition of AIDS is that people living with the condition are immunocompromised. Immune deficiency is one of the signs that separates a person living with AIDS from someone who acquired HIV.

People diagnosed with AIDS are susceptible to opportunistic infections that people with healthy immune systems would generally be capable of fighting off.

This is because a specific type of immune system cells, CD4 cells, are reduced in number when the virus is active. When a person diagnosed with HIV has a CD4 cell count that is below 200 cells per millimeter they are defined as having AIDS.

Chemotherapy

The agents used to attack cancer cells also affect any actively dividing cells, including those in the bone marrow that produce the white blood cells that are a key part of the immune system. As a result, white blood cell counts often drop for people undergoing chemotherapy.

Cancer

Certain cancers can cause a person to become immunocompromised even without chemotherapy. These include leukemia and lymphoma, in which cancerous white blood cells crowd out functioning white blood cells.

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases include those in which the immune system attacks itself, such as myasthenia gravis and systemic lupus erythematosus.

Medications

Those that inhibit the immune system include corticosteroids, tumor necrosis factor inhibitors, and anticonvulsants.

Chronic Diseases

Diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, hepatitis, and alcoholism can inhibit the immune system.

Congenital Disorders

Some rare disorders present at birth affect the immune system and can result in immunodeficiency.

Aging

As you age, you produce fewer T-cells, macrophages, and complement proteins, which are all key parts of the immune system.

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will probably want to do several tests if they are worried you might have an immune deficiency. In addition, they will probably ask for a detailed medical history to determine if you've had repeated infections that can be a hallmark of an immune disorder.

The blood tests will likely include a white blood cell count, a T-cell count, and a check of your antibody (immunoglobulin) levels. Your healthcare provider may also attempt to vaccinate you to see if the vaccine causes your body to produce protective antibodies. If it does not, that may be because of an immune deficiency.

Diagnosing that a person has an immunodeficiency is different from diagnosing its cause. Diagnosing the cause of immunodeficiency can range from looking for an infectious disease, such as HIV, to genetic testing, to cancer screening. Several conditions can lead to immunodeficiency, and the diagnostic pathway for each one is different.

Treatment

Depending on the reason a person is immunocompromised, the deficiencies in their immune system may be temporary or permanent. In many cases, it is possible for a person's immune system to return to nearly full function.

For example, successfully treating HIV can restore the immune system. However, with a primary immunodeficiency, treatment options may be more limited.

In general, it's the cause of the immunodeficiency that's treated, not the immunodeficiency itself. One treatment for immunodeficiency may be a bone marrow transplant. However, that's only an appropriate treatment for individuals whose bone marrow isn't producing enough immune cells.

When the immunodeficiency itself isn't treatable, there are still other options. For example, there are therapies available that can help individuals fight off certain infections. You may also be more likely to need antibiotics or antiviral medications to fight diseases that immunocompetent people can ward off without treatment.

A Word From Verywell

One of the questions many people have about HIV infection is whether it always leads to someone being immunocompromised. The answer is no. With early and effective treatment, people living with HIV can live long, healthy lives and show no clinical signs of an immune deficiency.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who is immunocompromised?

    People who are considered immunocompromised include those diagnosed with HIV, AIDS, cancers like leukemia and Hodgkin lymphoma, alcoholism, diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, hepatitis, lupus, and congenital disorders (disorders present at birth, such as cystic fibrosis). People who are older as well as those receiving chemotherapy can also be immunocompromised.

  • How do I know if I'm immunocompromised?

    You may be immunocompromised if you:

    • Often experience infections, such as having pneumonia twice a year or dealing with an ear infection at least four times per year
    • Have frequent colds that last for several days
    • Frequently experience digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, or excessive gas
    • Wounds such as a scrape or burn which take a long time to heal
    • Are often tired despite getting enough sleep
    • Have great levels of stress over long periods of time

    Maintaining a healthy weight based on your height, getting enough sleep, regularly washing your hands, following a balanced and nutritious diet, and regularly exercising can help strengthen your immune system.

  • What does autoimmune mean?

    When a person is autoimmune, it means that they have a disease which orders the body to attack normal cells and tissues. A few examples of these diseases include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes. Normally the immune system only targets viruses and bacteria that pose a threat, but autoimmune diseases turn these defensive systems against the body.

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6 Sources
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.
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