What Does it Mean to Be Immunocompromised?

Samantha Hil, Vice President, Marketing

You may have heard the term “immunocompromised,” or “immune-compromised,” in various health-related discussions, such as those related to COVID-19, where health authorities warned that people who were immunocompromised were especially susceptible to the disease. Being immunocompromised is also a significant issue in the transplant industry.

But what does it actually mean to be immunocompromised? To grasp what it means to be immunocompromised, it helps to have a basic understanding of the immune system.

How the Immune System Works

The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs, whose job is to protect the body from germs and other harmful things, including illness-causing bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. When something foreign enters your body, the immune system identifies it as an invader and attacks it to keep you healthy.

What Does Immunocompromised Mean?

Being immunocompromised means that a person’s immune system is weakened or not functioning properly, which makes it less capable of fighting off infections and diseases. This can make it easier for you to get sick and harder for your body to recover from illnesses.

What Causes a Person to Become Immunocompromised?

A person can become immunocompromised for many reasons.

Disease: Certain medical conditions can weaken the immune system, including chronic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, and diabetes, and autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Medications: Certain treatments and immunosuppressant medications, such as chemotherapy, immunosuppressants for organ transplant recipients, or steroids, can suppress immune function.

Genetic Factors: Some people are born with conditions or immunodeficiency diseases that cause their immune system to be weaker than normal. These immune system disorders include primary immunodeficiency diseases (PIDDs), a group of inherited conditions in which the immune system is affected by lack or dysfunction of white blood cells.

Age: Both very young children and older adults can have weak immune systems.

Lifestyle Factors: Poor nutrition, lack of sleep, high levels of stress, and substance abuse can also impair immune function.

Living with a Weakened Immune System

For those who are immunocompromised, everyday life requires extra caution to avoid infections. Simple actions, like staying home when sick, getting vaccinated, and practicing good hygiene, can make a significant difference in protecting those with weakened immune systems.

Good Hygiene: Regular hand washing, avoiding close contact with sick individuals (or wearing a mask when proximity is unavoidable), and maintaining the cleanliness of surroundings can reduce risks for immunocompromised individuals.

Vaccinations: Staying up to date with vaccinations can help prevent infections. However, some vaccines might not be suitable for those with compromised immune systems, so it’s important to consult your healthcare provider.

Lifestyle: Eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol can help bolster the immune system.

Medical Care: Regular check-ups with healthcare providers, adhering to prescribed medications, and promptly addressing any signs of infection are essential.

Because being immunocompromised increases the risk of infection, it requires greater awareness and caution. While it presents challenges, knowledge and support can help those affected lead healthier, safer lives.