Being Immunocompromised or Having an Immune Deficiency

CANGE, HAITI - MARCH 24: Blood tests wait to be inspected at the lab of Zanmi Lasante Hospital March 24, 2005 in Cange, Haiti. Many HIV positive patients come to be hospitalized here, but the majority of HIV infected people will stay at home in their final stage of life and will die there as most hospitals in the country can not take them. (Photo by Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images). Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images

A person is said to have an immune deficiency or be immunocompromised when their immune system is incapable of working at full capacity. It is the opposite of being immunocompetent. The immune system is how the body fights off diseases and protects itself against new infections. Therefore, someone who is immunocompromised will usually get sick more often, stay sick longer, and be more vulnerable to different types of infections.

There are many conditions that can lead to a person becoming immunocompromised. AIDS - the acquired immune deficiency syndrome - is only one of them. Part of the definition of AIDS is that people with the disease are immunocompromised. That immune deficiency is one of the signs that separates a person with AIDS from someone who is merely infected with HIV. People with AIDS are susceptible to opportunistic infections, which people with healthy immune systems would generally be capable of fighting off.

Chemotherapy and certain cancers can cause a person to become immunocompromised. Autoimmune diseases can as well. These diseases are conditions where the immune system attacks itself.

Immune deficiencies can also be caused by certain medications, stress, old age, poor nutrition, and other conditions. People can even be born immunocompromised if they have a congenital disorder that affects their immune system.

Depending on the reason a person is immunocompromised, the deficiencies in their immune system may be temporary or permanent. In many cases, it is possible for a person's immune system to return to nearly full function. If it doesn't, there are therapies available that can help individuals fight off certain infections.

There are also degrees of immune deficiency. Some people simply take longer to fight off common infections, whereas others must be protected from any disease exposures -- because even a normally mild condition could put their life at risk.

Is Everyone With HIV Immunocompromised?

One of the questions many people have about HIV infection is whether it always leads to someone being immunocompromised. The answer is no. With early and effective treatment, people can live long healthy lives with HIV infection and show no clinical signs of an immune deficiency.

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