Primary immune deficiencies are defects in the body’s immune system that can lead to an increased amount of infections. They are considered “primary” immunodeficiencies because they are not caused by anything else, i.e. HIV or medications. Immune deficiencies are different from “autoimmune diseases”, which occur when the immune system is overactive instead of underactive. Both adults and children can be diagnosed with immune deficiency.
There are many different types of primary immune deficiency because the immune system is very complex. In one of the more common types of immune deficiency, patients lack the ability to produce effective antibodies to fight bacteria, viruses and fungi. Other less-common immune defects include a deficiency of cells called “T cells” which fight fungi and viruses, and deficiencies of basic immune cells which can cause severe recurrent infections with bacteria.
Symptoms of immune deficiency depend on the specific defect in the immune system that the patient has. Patients who have problems producing effective antibodies or lack cells called “B cells” may have recurrent severe infections with bacteria, such as pneumonia, blood infections, or sinus infections. Patients who have defects in their T cells or basic immune cells may be more susceptible to recurrent and often severe fungal and viral infections, as well as bacterial infections.
Immune deficiency is diagnosed by blood testing. Your immunologist/allergist may do a basic set of laboratory tests on your blood to screen for immune defects. Based on the results of preliminary screening, your doctor may order more specific tests. Some testing may involve administration of a vaccine with a blood test several weeks later to determine if your body’s immune system is able to respond to that vaccination.
Treatment depends on the specific immune defect. For example, if your body is unable to produce effective antibodies against bacteria and viruses, these antibodies can be given monthly through an IV. Treatment of other immune defects can include preventive antibiotics, preventive fungus medications, and limiting exposure to sick people.
If you suspect that you might have an immune deficiency, make an appointment with your allergist/immunologist—we can help!
---by Dr. Katharine S. Nelson