What is Immunodeficiency?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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Immunodeficiency is when the body’s immune system is in some way impaired. It does not function as it should, meaning people with the condition are much more likely to be vulnerable to viral, bacterial, and/or fungal infections. This condition is normally split into two categories called primary/congenital or acquired, and any condition that causes immunodeficiency may work in different ways so that different aspects of immunity are deficient. Some illnesses or acquired states that result in an impaired system are extremely serious and others only result in minor impairment, so that with a small amount of intervention, life remains relatively normal.

There are many different parts of the immune system, and depending on disease or congenital conditions, some or most of them may be affected by immunodeficiency. Parts of the body that help to produce antigens, which fight foreign cells (germs of many sorts), include the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow cells and the tonsils. Should any of these parts become impaired or be lost, such as tonsil or spleen removal, the body may acquire a certain amount of immunodeficiency. In many instances, other parts of the lymph system take over, as with a tonsillectomy, still providing plenty of disease protection. At times, an impairment of the immune system is too great and a person becomes more vulnerable to infection.


Some types of immunodeficiency are inherited or congenital, and begin to operate soon after a child is born. These forms of primary immune deficiency can be extremely serious because newborns are already vulnerable medically. A condition like agammaglobulinemia may begin causing severe respiratory infections soon after birth because the body cannot produce antigens called b-lymphocytes. The illness may respond to treatment with repeated injections of immune globulins, but it also can be fatal. Other examples of primary immune deficiency can be found in conditions like Di George syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, and Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome. In total, there are approximately 200 congenital forms of immune deficiency.

Acquired immunodeficiency conditions are even more diverse and numerous, and occur in many ways. They result from viruses like HIV, signal development of certain diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, or are induced with therapies like drug treatment. Some are temporary, such as chemotherapy, where the immune system may recover when treatment ends. Other conditions are permanent and could be progressive.

Symptoms of immunodeficiency vary with each condition. Most noted are severe and repeated infections and complications from simple viral infections. Types of infections may depend on the type of disease causing the illness.

Treatment for these conditions is also highly variable. It could include strict avoidance of others with active illness, early treatment of any infection, immunizations with only dead viruses (live virus shots may cause illness), infusions of immunoglobulin, and medications to boost immunity or fight viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Sometimes other treatments like stem cell transplant are considered if the degree of impairment is high.


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