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What Does Immunocompromised Mean?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 01, 2021

‌If you are immunocompromised, it means that your immune system isn’t working properly. This can be caused by inherited conditions or other health conditions. 

Why Immunocompromisation Is a Health Risk

Immunocompromisation is a way to describe a weak immune system. When your immune system is weakened, your body can’t fight off viruses, bacteria, or fungi very well. This can lead to serious infections and can pose a major health risk.

Many different types of immune system disorders can cause health problems. An overactive immune system, for example, can cause asthma, allergies, and autoimmune diseases, where your immune system attacks your body’s own tissue instead of bacteria or viruses.‌‌

Immunocompromisation is generally the result of diseases or medical treatments that leave you with a weak immune system unable to fight infections. Immunocompromisation is sometimes also called immunodeficiency.‌

There are two types of immunodeficiency.

Primary immune deficiency. These are immune system problems that are present at birth. They are usually inherited conditions caused by genetic mutations.

Secondary immune deficiency. These happen later in life and usually after another condition or medication has weakened your immune system.

Immunodeficiency Diseases

The origins of inherited immune conditions are genetic, and they affect your white blood cells and complement proteins. Many of these conditions are very rare. In people who have them, parts of the immune system might be missing, not working properly, irregular, or reduced.

They include conditions like:‌

Secondary immune deficiency comes from other conditions or treatments and happens when you take medications that suppress or block your immune system. It often happens when people receive cancer treatment, organ transplants, or autoimmune disease treatments. Some examples would include:‌

  • radiation
  • chemotherapy
  • prednisone
  • methotrexate
  • stem cell transplant

Some serious long-term diseases can damage the immune system, which stops it from working properly. These diseases include:‌

  • cancer, especially bone marrow cancer
  • human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • diabetes
  • graft versus host disease
  • Steven-Johnson syndrome
  • major burns
  • scalded skin syndrome
  • undernutrition‌

Aging can also cause the immune system to become weaker. As you get older, your immune system makes fewer of the immune cells that help your body recognize bacteria and viruses. This means you might have a higher risk of getting sick.‌

Diabetes is another cause of a weak immune system because white blood cells don’t work when your blood sugar level is high.

A lack of important nutrients like zinc, selenium, and B12 can also cause a weak immune system. This can happen as a result of major burns, chronic infections, or kidney disease.‌

In patients with cancer, immunocompromisation happens when your white blood cell count is low. This is a side effect of cancer treatment.

Symptoms of a Compromised Immune System

‌Your doctor will tell you if you are taking medication or receiving therapy that will weaken or compromise your immune system. You might notice some of the following symptoms:‌‌

  • frequent infections or illnesses often 
  • infections that keep coming back
  • infections that don’t respond to medications
  • severe sickness from a common virus
  • sinus and lung infections
  • fever
  • chills
  • weight loss
  • chronic diarrhea
  • slow growth in children

‌If you have a weak immune system, you’re more likely to get sick than other people. It’s also more likely that there will be complications when you do get sick. An illness that is minor for other people may be serious for you. The common cold can turn into severe pneumonia, for example. 

Treatments for Immunocompromised People

‌Treatment for immunocompromisation depends on the cause, but it generally includes treating infections, preventing infections, and replacing missing parts of your immune system. These treatments can include:

  • ‌antiviral drugs
  • antibiotics and antifungal medications as needed
  • vaccines such as the flu vaccine
  • stem cell transplant
  • immunoglobulin 
  • gene therapy
  • thymus tissue transplant‌

Preventing infections is critical for immunocompromised people. You might be immunocompromised for the rest of your life, especially if you have an organ transplant or an inherited condition. There are steps you can take to prevent infections.

You can:

  • take your medications daily
  • avoid sick people
  • avoid crowds or wear a mask in public
  • wash your hands often with soap and water
  • drink plenty of fluids
  • practice good hygiene 
  • avoid cuts and scrapes where possible
  • avoid undercooked food
  • avoid swimming or bathing in contaminated water
  • stay up to date on your vaccines
  • practice safe, protected sex‌‌

Many people can live a normal life with treatment and careful attention to their health. Sometimes infections can be a medical emergency, so make sure you talk to your doctor if you are feeling unwell. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Alberta Health Services: “Infection Prevention and Control Considerations for Immunocompromised Patients.”

American Cancer Society: “Watching for and Preventing Infections.”

John Hopkins Medicine: “Disorders of the Immune System.”

Merck Manuals Consumer Version: “Overview of Immunodeficiency Disorders – Immune Disorders.”

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “Types of Primary Immune Deficiency Diseases.”

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center: "Cancer treatment side effect: Neutropenia" “What does it mean to be immunocompromised?”  

Vaillant, A., Qurie, A., Immunodeficiency, StatPearls Publishing, 2021.

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