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Immunodeficiency Disorders

What Is an Immunodeficiency Disorder?

Immunodeficiency disorders prevent your body from adequately fighting infections and diseases. An immunodeficiency disorder also makes it easier for you to catch viruses and bacterial infections in the first place.

Doctors often categorize immunodeficiency disorders as either congenital or acquired. A congenital, or primary, disorder is one you were born with. Acquired, or secondary, disorders are disorders you get later in life. Acquired disorders are more common than congenital disorders.

Your immune system includes the following organs:

  • spleen
  • tonsils
  • bone marrow
  • lymph nodes

These organs make and release lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are white blood cells classified as B cells and T cells. B and T cells fight invaders called antigens. B cells release antibodies specific to the disease your body detects. T cells kill off cells that are under attack by disease.

Examples of antigens that your B and T cells might need to fight off include:

  • bacteria
  • viruses
  • cancer cells
  • parasites

An immunodeficiency disorder disrupts your body’s ability to defend itself against these antigens.

What Are the Different Types of Immunodeficiency Disorders?

Primary immunodeficiency disorders are immune disorders you are born with. Primary disorders include:

  • X-linked agammaglobulinemia (XLA)
  • common variable immunodeficiency (CVID)
  • severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), which is known as “boy in a bubble” disease
  • alymphocytosis

Secondary disorders happen when an outside source, such as a toxic chemical or infection, attacks your body. Severe burns and radiation also can cause secondary disorders. Secondary disorders include:

  • AIDS
  • cancers of the immune system, such as leukemia
  • immune-complex diseases, such as viral hepatitis
  • multiple myeloma (a cancer of the plasma cells, which produce antibodies)

Who Is at Risk for Immunodeficiency Disorders?

People who have a family history of primary disorders have a higher-than-normal risk for developing primary disorders.

Anything that weakens your immune system can lead to a secondary immunodeficiency disorder. For example, exposure to bodily fluids infected with HIV can cause AIDS.

Removing the spleen can weaken your immune system. Spleen removal may be necessary for a number of diseases or injuries, including cirrhosis of the liver, sickle cell anemia, or trauma to the spleen. Aging also weakens your immune system. As you age, some of the organs that produce white blood cells shrink and produce fewer of them.

Proteins are important for your immunity. An insufficient amount of protein in the diet can reduce the strength of your immune system. Your body also produces proteins when you sleep that help your immune system fight infection. For this reason, lack of sleep reduces your immune defenses.

Cancers and chemotherapy drugs can also reduce your immunity.

The following diseases and conditions are linked to immunodeficiency disorders:

  • ataxia-telangiectasia
  • Chediak-Higashi syndrome
  • combined immunodeficiency disease
  • complement deficiencies
  • DiGeorge syndrome
  • hypogammaglobulinemia
  • Job syndrome
  • leukocyte adhesion defects
  • panhypogammaglobulinemia
  • Bruton’s disease
  • congenital agammaglobulinemia
  • selective deficiency of IgA
  • Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome

Signs of an Immunodeficiency Disorder

Each disorder has unique symptoms. One symptom of a weakened immune system is frequent or chronic illnesses, including pinkeye, sinus infections, colds, or diarrhea. If these problems don’t respond to treatment or you don’t completely get better over time, your doctor might test you for an immunodeficiency disorder. Recurrent pneumonia and yeast infections could also suggest you have a disorder.

How Are Immune Disorders Diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks you might have an immunodeficiency disorder, they will want to do the following:

  • ask you about your medical history
  • perform a physical exam
  • determine your T cell count
  • determine your white blood cell count

Vaccines can test your immune system response in what is called an antibody test. Your doctor will give you a vaccine and then test your blood for its response to the vaccine a few days or weeks later. If you don’t have an immunodeficiency disorder, your immune system will produce antibodies to fight the organisms in the vaccine. You might have a disorder if your blood test doesn’t show antibodies.

How Are Immunodeficiency Disorders Treated?

The treatment for each immunodeficiency disorder will be tailored to its specific conditions. For example, AIDS causes several different infections. Your doctor will prescribe medications that are appropriate for each infection. 

Treatment for immunodeficiency disorders commonly includes antibiotics and antibody replacement. A drug called interferon is a common treatment for the viral infections caused by a disorder.

If your bone marrow isn’t producing enough lymphocytes, your doctor might order a bone marrow transplant.

How Can Immunodeficiency Disorders Be Prevented?

Primary disorders can be controlled and treated, but they cannot be prevented.

Secondary disorders can be prevented in a number of ways. For example, it’s possible to prevent yourself from getting AIDS by not having unprotected sex with someone who carries HIV.

Sleep is very important for a healthy immune system. According to the Mayo Clinic, adults need about eight hours of sleep per night. It’s important that you stay away from people who are sick if your immune system isn’t working properly.

If you have a contagious immunodeficiency disorder like AIDS, you can keep others healthy by practicing safe sex and not sharing bodily fluids with people who don’t have the condition.

What Is the Outlook for Someone with an Immunodeficiency Disorder?

Most doctors agree that people with immunodeficiency disorders can lead full and productive lives. Early identification and treatment of the disorder and the problems it causes are very important.


Content licensed from:

Written by: Elea Carey
Published on: Sep 25, 2012
Medically reviewed on: Aug 30, 2016: Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, FACP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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