A Definition of Immune Deficiency
Immune deficiency, or immunodeficiency, is a disorder that prevents the body from effectively fighting infections and diseases. This means that the immune system is not as strong as normal, which often results in recurring and life-threatening infections. More than 250 primary immunodeficiency diseases are recognized by the World Health Organization, and they are divided by disease type, including antibody deficiencies, cellular immunodeficiencies, and innate immune disorders.
Immunodeficiency disorders also make people more susceptible to acquiring viruses and bacterial infections in the first place. Immunodeficiency disorders may be either congenital or acquired: people with congenital disorders were born with them, while people get acquired disorders later in life. It is worth noting that acquired disorders are more common than those that are congenital.
The Immune System: An Overview
Your immune system consists of your spleen, tonsils, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. These organs work together to create and release lymphocytes, the white blood cells that are classified as B cells and T cells and that fight invaders, or antigens. B cells release antibodies that are specific to diseases detected by your body, while T cells eliminate cells that are attacked by disease. Immunodeficiency disorders impair your body’s ability to defend itself against antigens such as bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, and parasites.
Examples of Immune Deficiency Disorders
When the immune system is compromised, it reacts slowly or not at all to protect the body from antigens, germs, and other invaders, making it more difficult to fight off infections. There are a few causes of immune deficiency, including medications or illness. On the other hand, primary immune deficiency is a genetic disorder that is present in an individual from birth.
Primary Immune Deficiency includes Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID) and Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID):
- SCID causes severe impairment in multiple areas of the immune system, and infants with SCID typically die from infections before age one. Bone marrow transplants have been known to cure some cases of SCID.
- CVID results in a child’s immune system producing too few antibodies to effectively fight infections. CVID children have frequent infections of the ears, lungs, nose, eyes, and other organs. Successful treatments include replacing missing antibodies with regular injections of antibodies, or immunoglobulins.
Acquired Immune Deficiency includes Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS), drug-induced immune deficiency, and Graft Versus Host Syndrome.
- HIV/AIDS infects and destroys immune system cells that fight infections, and as a person’s immune system cells decline, he becomes increasingly vulnerable to infections.
- Drug-induced immune deficiency occurs when people take immune-suppressing drugs for extended periods of time. These individuals need to be closely monitored by a physician in order to detect and treat infections.
- Graft Verus Host Syndrome occurs after a person undergoes a bone marrow transplant, as the donor’s immune system cells attack the recipient’s tissues. Immune-suppressing medications are given to recipients to prevent damage caused by the donor’s immune cells.
Treatments for Primary Immunodeficiency
Treatments for primary immunodeficiency commonly include preventing and treating infections, boosting the immune system, and treating the underlying cause of the immune deficiency.
Managing infections includes treating infections with antibiotics, preventing infections with long-term antibiotics and avoiding vaccines containing live viruses, and treating symptoms with medications for pain and fever and sinus congestion and thick mucus in the airways.
Boosting the immune system may include a few strategies, depending on the individual’s primary immunodeficiency. Immunoglobulin therapy involves injections or treatments on a scheduled basis. Gamma interferon therapy involves injecting a synthetic substance into the thigh or arm a few times a week to treat chronic granulomatous disease, one form of primary immunodeficiency. And, growth factor therapy helps individuals who lack certain white blood cells.
Treating the underlying cause of the immune deficiency may involve a stem cell transplant for a permanent cure. Normal stem cells are transplanted in the person with the immunodeficiency, resulting in a normally functioning immune system; however, the stem cell transplants are not always successful, and they often require chemotherapy or radiation prior to the transplant to destroy functioning immune cells, which leave the recipient more susceptible to infection.
Other Ways to Boost the Immune System
There are other ways to strengthen your immune system if you are having difficulty fighting off infection. Research is showing that probiotics and bacteria found in yogurt help the body ward off infections. And, the research shows that these immune boosters help to fight infection throughout the body, and not just in the intestines. Of course, it is best to consult with your physician and determine whether your immune system is weak or if you have an immune deficiency and to determine the best course of treatment.