In medicine, one speaks of an immune defect or immunodeficiency when the immune system is disturbed and can no longer protect the body from pathogens and cancer cells. In healthy people, the immune system works quite well, but is also very susceptible to disruption.
What is an immune deficiency?
In general, the immune deficiency can be detected in a blood test. The antibodies in the blood can be precisely detected and a deficiency can be precisely determined.
In medicine, a distinction is made between two types of immune defects. On the one hand, the immunodeficiency can be congenital (primary immunodeficiency) or it can be acquired over the course of life (secondary immunodeficiency).
According to abbreviationfinder, the primary immunodeficiency occurs less frequently and can be traced back to defective genes that are responsible for the formation of antibodies. In recent years they have either increased in number or are better recognized today.
The secondary immunodeficiency is an acquired disorder due to certain diseases or deficiency states. The defense cells and antibodies are destroyed by viruses, chemical toxins, serious illnesses or wrong lifestyle.
The cause of congenital immune deficiencies has not yet been scientifically clarified. In recent years, however, experts have agreed that a specific gene is responsible for destroying the function of the antibodies. Acquired immunodeficiencies can have a variety of causes.
Severe infectious diseases that weaken or even destroy the body’s defense system (as in AIDS), leukemia, cancer therapies, major operations, intake of immunosuppressive drugs (after transplantations), persistent stressful situations, drugs, malnutrition, poisoning, chronic diseases such as diabetes can trigger immune defects.
Symptoms, Ailments & Signs
In the case of a diagnosed immune deficiency, the chances of recovery are very different. If the patient is accompanied by drug therapy, the life expectancy can be similar to that of healthy people. Early diagnosis and consistent adherence to therapy are important for a good quality of life.
A healthy immune system is maintained with a healthy diet, plenty of outdoor exercise, and adequate sleep. The consumption of alcohol and smoking damage the immune system and should be avoided. Of course, this is particularly true for patients with a diagnosis of immunodeficiency. In the best-case scenario, people affected by the immune deficiency can be symptom-free for the rest of their lives and need no medical treatment.
Other sufferers will need to seek medical treatment at regular intervals. Infusions help stabilize the body with the missing antibodies. Depending on the nature of the underlying disease, single or multiple infusions will be required for the healing process. Particular care must be taken to prevent infectious diseases.
Larger gatherings of people and contact with infected people, especially those with a cold, should be avoided. Last but not least, the close connection between the psyche and the immune system should be pointed out. Research shows that the immune system works better when the mood is positive. A positive attitude towards life and open communication contribute to healing or relief.
Diagnosis & History
Early diagnosis, especially in the case of congenital immune defects, is vital. Patients and doctors should therefore pay attention to certain warning signals. If more than two cases of pneumonia, more than four severe infections per year, recurring skin abscesses and fungal infections of the oral mucosa occur or vaccination complications and growth disorders arise, you should definitely see a specialist for further diagnosis.
In general, the immune deficiency can be detected in a blood test. The antibodies in the blood can be precisely detected and a deficiency can be precisely determined. Doctors can immediately see whether there is an immune deficiency or not. If an immune deficiency has already occurred in the family, an examination should even take place in the mother’s abdomen.
An immune deficiency can lead to various complications and symptoms. In the worst case, however, the patient dies of an infection or an illness, since the body cannot defend itself against it. The immune deficiency leads to an increased susceptibility to infections and inflammations, which is why the patient gets sick more often.
Those affected suffer primarily from inflammation of the ears and lungs. In the worst case, these inflammations can be life-threatening and severely limit the quality of life. In many cases, the constant illnesses also lead to psychological problems, so that the patients suffer from inferiority complexes and reduced self-esteem.
As a rule, the patient’s body also needs a longer period of time to fight off the infections and inflammation. Life expectancy can be reduced by the immune deficiency. Treating the defect involves administering antibodies to the patient, which can help relieve discomfort and symptoms.
This treatment usually has to be lifelong so that no consequential damage occurs. If infections or inflammation have already occurred, they are treated with antibiotics. There are no complications. Mental health problems are treated by a psychologist.
When should you go to the doctor?
People who keep getting infections should talk to a doctor. Recurring inflammations also indicate an immune deficiency, which must be diagnosed and treated promptly. If further complaints are added, a doctor must be consulted immediately. People whose family already has immunodeficiencies should see their family doctor and have them examined. This is particularly necessary in the case of increasing symptoms and a gradual decrease in well-being, which suggests a serious illness.
In the case of serious complications such as pneumonia or recurring infections, a hospital must be visited. In the event of a medical emergency, for example if the person concerned loses consciousness or suffers from shortness of breath, an emergency service must be called. In case of doubt, the medical emergency service can be contacted first. Since an immune deficiency cannot be treated causally, lifelong monitoring is required. In order to ensure that the medication is optimally adjusted and to avoid complications, those affected should speak to their family doctor regularly. Other contacts are specialists in internal medicine and lung specialists.
Treatment & Therapy
The therapy for primary immune deficiencies is usually carried out by regularly taking antibodies (immunoglobulins from healthy donors) for life. In this way, many patients can be treated successfully. Immunoglobulin therapy can be done in two ways. The immunoglobulins are either injected directly into a vein or under the skin.
A higher dose is given for a severe infection than for a milder infection. Ideally, the infection rate of healthy people can be reached in this way. Patients also have to take several medications and antibiotics against bacteria and fungi because immunoglobins cannot protect the body as well as real antibodies.
If the immune deficiency is caused by the living conditions of the patient, life counseling or psychotherapy should be offered in addition to medication and vitamins. This can take the form of nutrition, drug or stress avoidance counseling or in the form of talk therapy. If the defect arose as a result of a disease, the underlying disease, which is the main cause of the immune system disorder, should be treated.
For some patients with congenital immunodeficiencies, stem cell or bone marrow transplants can provide a permanent cure. This therapy is only carried out in the case of severe immune deficiencies, without which the patient would otherwise die. A new form of therapy is gene therapy, whereby an intact gene is inserted into the genetic material (DNA) in order to restore the function of the defective gene. This therapy is only carried out on patients with immune deficiencies in whom all other treatment measures have failed.
Outlook & Forecast
In the case of an immune deficiency, the prognosis depends on the type and severity of the immune deficiency. Basically, an early diagnosis improves the prospect of a symptom-free life. The more severe infections a patient overcomes, the more likely are late effects. Patients who respond positively to antibody treatment often make a full recovery.
In the case of severe immunodeficiencies, on the other hand, serious complications can occur, sometimes leading to the death of the patient. The life expectancy of the affected patients is usually reduced. A pathological susceptibility to infection that is not diagnosed and treated can already be fatal in childhood. Permanent heart damage or immune disorders can also develop during the development phase, which represent a permanent burden for the patient.
In order to improve the prognosis, the family doctor should be consulted if there is an increased susceptibility to infection. The doctor can quickly diagnose an immune deficiency and improve the prospect of a relatively symptom-free life. Appropriate measures such as drug therapies and preventive protective measures can prevent the outbreak of a serious infection. In the case of a disease-related infection, such as can occur as part of leukemia or HIV infection, the focus is on treating the causative disease.
Early warning systems are important as preventive measures for congenital immune defects in order to enable timely treatment. In the case of acquired immunodeficiencies, the risk of infection must be kept as low as possible due to the higher susceptibility to infection. A healthy lifestyle with plenty of outdoor exercise, sufficient sleep, stress avoidance and good nutrition can have a positive effect on or even prevent many immune deficiencies.
Dealing with an immune deficiency often extends over a longer period of time. Here, therapy, aftercare and prevention merge directly into one another. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the better the chances of living a symptom-free life. In the case of frequent infections, on the other hand, there is a risk of long-term consequences, which is why regular check-ups with the doctor are essential.
Early warning systems are used to prevent this during aftercare. Patients and their relatives should deal with the issue and closely monitor the increased susceptibility to infection. It is also about reducing the risk of infection. For the families affected, the doctor recommends a health-conscious lifestyle with sufficient exercise and sleep, a balanced diet and avoidance of stress.
This basic framework has a positive influence on susceptibility and can avoid worse consequences. There are self-help groups for adults and children. Here those affected can exchange information and experiences and help each other. Even children can learn at an early age to integrate therapy into everyday life and to take on responsibility.
For example, there are relaxation techniques and breathing exercises for aftercare. The social contacts also help to strengthen self-confidence. This makes everyday life easier to cope with and those affected feel more resilient.
You can do that yourself
There are a number of self-help groups that offer support to adults, but especially to children with immune deficiencies and their parents. In Germany, for example, there is the patient organization for congenital immune defects eV The national contact and information center for the encouragement and support of self-help groups NAKOS provides a database in which interested parties can search for regional self-help groups.
Exclusion caused by such a disease, especially in children, makes normal everyday life more difficult. In kindergarten and school, an open discussion and the appropriate handling of it can offer help. The teaching staff should be informed that the child in question may be subject to frequent absenteeism. This increases understanding and teachers and classmates show consideration.
A sick child should take responsibility for certain areas of their therapy as early as possible. It can apply learned relaxation techniques and perform breathing exercises. Singing lessons or membership in a choir stabilizes self-esteem and, like physical activity, enables social contacts to be established. Patient training courses that are often offered are suitable for dealing competently with one’s own illness and help to make everyday life easier.