Tips to Help You Manage a Weakened Immune System

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 27, 2015
4 min read

If your immune system isn't strong, either due to medicines you take or because of a health condition, you’ll want to take special care of yourself.

The changes you make to your daily routine don't even have to be big ones. A few tweaks can keep you feeling on top.

A lot of people who have a weakened immune system, especially with chemo or radiation treatment for cancer, have fatigue. Even the smallest things -- going shopping or visiting friends -- can wear you out.

With a little homework, though, you can still do most of what you want to do.

For a week, jot down notes to track how you feel at different times of the day.

"Monitoring your own energy level [can be] a real eye-opener," says Claudine Campbell, occupational therapy manager at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "There are times during the day that you might have more energy."

Figure out when those times are and plan activities then.

For low-energy periods, try these three strategies:

1. Plan ahead. Make a list for grocery shopping and map your trip through the aisles in advance. "Then you can go through the store once and not have to repeat," says Brent Braveman, PhD, director of rehabilitation at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Some stores even have floor plans online. And when you do shop, get perishables last so you can take them home right away.

2. Simplify. Knock out steps you don’t really need to do. For example, use a cart to collect everything you need from the pantry before you start to cook. This eliminates extra trips, and you don't have to carry anything.

3. Take a seat. Sit rather than stand when you shower or cook.

Most people with weak immune systems don't need a special diet, as long as you get all the nutrients you need.

The best strategy is simple: Eat a variety of foods with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.

You may also want to:

  • Stay away from processed foods with a lot of additives.
  • Avoid foods that are raw or undercooked, as they can make you sick.
  • Don't drink water if you don't know where it came from or if it has been sitting in its container for a long time.
  • Skip nutritional supplements unless you first talk with your doctor. There's no evidence they'll “boost” your immune system, and some can even be harmful.
  • Talk to your doctor before popping extra vitamins. Too much of a good thing can hurt you.

Exercise is key. Although it might seem surprising, "the kind of fatigue that people with immune issues have may not be improved by rest," Braveman says.

This doesn't mean you need to run a marathon. You can boost your energy with simpler activities. Try walking, swimming, tai chi, or yoga.

The important thing is to make it part of your routine.

"You [can] customize it," says Sara Wolfson, a geriatric nurse practitioner with the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. "Sometimes it's 5 minutes a day, sometimes 10. We tell people to break it up and rest in between."

Exercise also lowers stress, which can worsen immune problems. Studies show that people who work out get sick less often than people who stay still.

Talk to your doctor about which activities are fine for you to try. Some people with immune disorders should not play contact sports or swim in oceans and lakes.

One of the biggest dangers people with immune problems face is the risk of infection. Common sense can lower that risk:

  • Wash your hands often and carry hand disinfectant.
  • If someone wants to shake your hand, tell them you have a cold. You stay germ-free and they're not offended.
  • Wear a surgical mask in crowded places, and avoid crowded places completely if there's a flu outbreak.
  • Make sure your family members wash their hands, sneeze into their elbows, and take care of you by taking care of their hygiene.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Tell your doctor about any symptoms as soon as you notice them to avoid a full-blown illness.
  • Brush and floss your teeth regularly, and visit your dentist to stave off any infections caused by tooth decay.
  • Talk to your doctor before you get vaccinations (including those for travel). Some can be harmful to people with certain immune conditions.
  • Make sure your family members keep up with their vaccinations.
  • Rest up. It helps if you keep regular sleep hours, avoid long naps, and take some quiet time before you go to bed.
  • Choose pets with care. Dogs and cats are usually good choices, but reptiles and birds can carry germs and can't be immunized.