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Immunocompromised: How to Know If You Have a Weakened Immune System

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by Amydee Morris, PharmD

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Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP

Medically Reviewed

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by Amydee Morris, PharmD

•••••

Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP

Medically Reviewed

•••••

•••••

If you have a compromised immune system, you can take actions to protect yourself and stay healthy.

Do you notice you’re often sick with a cold, or maybe your cold lasts a really long time?

Being constantly sick can be concerning and frustrating, and you might wonder if your immune system is functioning properly. But how do you know if your immune system is weaker than it should be?

It’s important to understand what might weaken the immune system and what you can do to stay as healthy as possible.

What does ‘immunocompromised’ mean?

Immunocompromised is a broad term which means that the immune system is weaker than expected and not functioning properly.

The immune system is made up of an army of different types of cells all working to protect you against bacteria, viruses, and other things that might cause infection. When this system isn’t functioning properly, the body is much more susceptible to illness.

You may also hear the terms immunodeficiency or immunosuppressed. These terms mean you have a higher risk of getting an infection and becoming sick.

However, it’s possible to be immunocompromised to different degrees.

Being immunocompromised isn’t a light switch that’s either on or off — it functions on a spectrum, more like a dimmer.

If someone is slightly immunocompromised, they may be more likely to catch the common cold. Others who are severely immunocompromised may catch the common cold and find it’s life-threatening.

Being immunocompromised can be temporary or permanent. In many cases, such as during cancer treatment, the immune system can recover after some time. If the offending cause is removed, the immune system may recover back to a healthy state.

Alternatively, being immunocompromised may be permanent, as is the case with many congenital diseases.

How long your immune system remains weakened depends on the cause.

What can cause me to become immunocompromised?

Being immunocompromised can be due to manycauses:

  • chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, HIV, and cancer
  • autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • medications or treatments, such as radiation therapy
  • transplants, such as bone marrow or solid organ
  • advanced age
  • poor nutrition
  • pregnancy
  • a combination of any of the above

How can I tell if I’m immunocompromised?

There are a few ways to help determine if you have a compromised immune system.

You may become sick more frequently or for longer periods compared to other healthy people.

In more severe cases, it’s also possible that someone with a weakened immune system may not experience the normal signs of infection, such as swelling, fever, or pus from a wound. These signs can be muted or may not appear at all, making it difficult to detect an infection.

There are different blood tests available to help measure the function of the immune system, including ones that check your white blood cell count and immunoglobulins.

Several types of blood cells are critical for a properly functioning immune system, so healthcare professionals may consider many tests when assessing yours.

What can I do to stay healthy?

If you have a compromised immune system, you can take actions to protect yourself and stay healthy:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Avoid people who are sick with a contagious illness.
  • Avoid touching your face (eyes, nose, and mouth), especially in public areas.
  • Clean and disinfect commonly-touched surfaces.
  • Eat a balanced diet.
  • Ensure adequate sleep.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Minimize stress (as best as possible).

Next steps

While having a compromised immune system can be difficult, there are tests and strategies available to help you stay as healthy as possible.

If you’re unsure if you’re considered immunocompromised, don’t hesitate to speak to a member of your healthcare team.

Article originally appeared on May 18, 2020 on Bezzy’s sister site, Healthline. Last medically reviewed on May 18, 2020.

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About the author

Amydee Morris, PharmD

Amydee Morris, BSP, ACPR, PharmD, completed a postbaccalaureate Doctorate of Pharmacy at University of Toronto. After establishing a career in oncology pharmacy, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 30. She continues to work in cancer care and uses her expertise and practical experience to guide patients back to wellness. Learn about Dr. Amydee’s personal cancer story and wellness advice on her website, Instagram, or Facebook.