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What Does Being Immunocompromised Mean?

By Fitoru | 05 June 2020
Blue herpes viruses

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) put adults older than 60, people of all ages with underlying medical conditions, and immunocompromised individuals at higher risk of severe illness or death from viruses such as coronavirus, or COVID-19. But what does being immunocompromised mean? This article discusses the causes, symptoms, and risk factors of immunosuppression, as well as best practices for staying safe.

What Does It Mean to Be Immunocompromised?

Immunocompromised means your immune system’s ability to fight off infections or diseases is compromised.  

Your immune system is an adaptive network of organs, tissues, and cells that work together to fight off pathogens. When your immune defenses are weakened, you’re at a higher risk of infection and vulnerable to an aggressive or deadly disease progression. 

This could be due to immunosuppression or immunodeficiency.

Immunosuppression occurs when the immune system is intentionally suppressed with medications, such as for autoimmune conditions or after an organ transplant.

Immunodeficiency is the result of the body’s inability to make enough of a specific type of blood cell to adequately defend against infections. There are two types of immunodeficiencies.

Primary Immunodeficiency

Primary immunodeficiency, of which there are over 300 kinds, arises from a genetic mutation. A condition such as chronic granulomatous disease (CGD) is diagnosed early in life, while other inherited primary immunodeficiencies, such as immunoglobulin A deficiency and common variable immunodeficiency (CVID) are diagnosed later in life. These conditions can greatly increase your risk for both respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.

Secondary Immunodeficiency

The more common of the two, secondary immunodeficiency can be caused by certain medications and drug therapies, diseases such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease, malnutrition, or environmental factors.

What Can Cause Someone to Be Immunocompromised?

Below is a list of possible causes of immunodeficiency or immunosuppression.

  • Chronic diseases such as heart disease, kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, hepatitis, or liver disease
  • Cancers, especially lung cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, myelomas
  • Chemo or radiation therapy
  • AIDS
  • Autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus
  • Congenital disorders such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis
  • Medical procedures such as removal of the spleen, bone marrow ablation, or organ transplant
  • Infections, including bacterial, mycobacterial, or viral (measles, herpes) 
  • Immunosuppressant medications such as corticosteroids and TNF inhibitors 
  • Frequent antibiotic use
  • Aging
  • Obesity
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking or drinking excessively
  • Lack of sun exposure
What Does Being Immunocompromised Mean?

How to Know If You Are Immunocompromised

If you have not been diagnosed with a chronic or autoimmune disease but are manifesting the following symptoms, then a doctor’s consultation is in order. Your physician will conduct numerous lab tests to determine your immune system status as well as the root cause of compromise.

  • You get sick often and for a longer duration than is usual
  • You are particularly vulnerable to infections
  • You have frequent digestive problems
  • You suffer from headache, muscle, and joint pain
  • You have common symptoms of chronic inflammation such as fever, rashes, stomach distress, or chest pain

How to Protect Yourself If You Are Immunocompromised

If you are immunocompromised it is important to follow the sanitary and social distancing guidelines of expert health organizations. Best practices include:

  • Frequently washing your hands with soap and water or a sanitizer made up of 60% alcohol
  • Avoiding touching your face
  • Showering daily
  • Disinfecting the surface in your home
  • Seeking medical attention at the first sign of illness

Boosting Your Immune System

Certain risk factors for a compromised immune system, such as lack of sun exposure or physical activity, can be improved with dietary and lifestyle adjustments. You can boost your immune system by:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and fermented foods
  • Avoiding processed, sugary, and starchy foods
  • Managing your stress levels with practices such as yoga and meditation
  • Sticking to a consistent exercise routine
  • Prioritizing sleep
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Supplementing with immune-enhancing nutrients
    • Oregano oil
    • Elderberry
    • Astragalus
    • Echinacea
    • Probiotics
    • Vitamins C and D
    • Zinc

If you are specifically looking to boost your immune system against the coronavirus, check out this article: How to Boost Your Immune System Against Coronavirus.


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