Immune deficiencies: What do I need to know?

By David L. Schneider M.D., Allergist & Immunologist


Immunodeficiency disorders are a group of disorders in which the immune system's ability to fight infectious diseases or abnormal cells is compromised or entirely absent. As a result, the body loses its ability to fight infectious diseases and becomes more susceptible to attacks from bacteria, viruses, fungi and cancer cells. Many people who suffer from these illnesses find that their infections are more frequent, more severe, and require a longer recovery time. The infections may also be caused by more unusual organisms than what are normally encountered.

The two types of immunodeficiency disorders are primary immunodeficiency disease (PIDD), which occurs as a result of hereditary or genetic factors, and secondary immunodeficiency (SIDD) which is caused by non-genetic factors such as environmental influences like chemotherapy, chronic infections, AIDS, severe burns, malnutrition or some forms of cancer. The latest PIDD information from the Immune Deficiency Foundation shows that researchers have identified over 200 different types of these conditions and that continuing research will likely uncover more. The prevalence of these diseases increases every time measured as doctors are more aware to look for these conditions.

While PIDD only affects about 500,000 people in the United States, these diseases are chronic and often result in very serious repeated infections. These infections may involve the skin, respiratory system, brain or spinal cord, urinary or gastrointestinal tracts or other areas of the body. Although many primary immune system diseases are genetic and appear at birth or in early childhood, others may manifest later in life regardless of age or gender.

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology offers some guidelines for important signs that may indicate the presence of a PIDD

These include:

  • Recurrent, unusual or difficult to treat infections

  • Poor growth or loss of weight

  • Recurrent pneumonia, ear infections or sinusitis

  • Multiple courses of antibiotics or IV antibiotics necessary to clear infections

  • Recurrent deep abscesses of the organs or skin

  • A family history of PIDD

  • Swollen lymph glands or an enlarged spleen

  • Autoimmune disease

If you suspect that you or your child may suffer from an immunodeficiency, seek the guidance of a qualified Allergist-Immunologist. These specialists are uniquely trained to search for primary or secondary immunodeficiency disorders and best qualified to discuss treatment options. We welcome your questions or comments.

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