The immune system is a vital piece of the health puzzle. It acts as a defender against all types of infections and illnesses while also encouraging overall health throughout the body by warding off disease and chronic ailments such as cancer. The system is a collection of glands, organs, and tissues working together toward optimal health.
The immune system is always “on”, continuously working to keep you healthy and safe. However, the immune system can become faulty or stop working as it should. When this happens, it is often referred to as immune suppression – the action of the system is hindered or suppressed. Since the immune system does so much for the health of the body, when it isn’t able to work as hard as it should, it can lead to other health problems.
What is chronic immune suppression?
The immune system works toward keeping you healthy with a host of different cells, antibodies, and other organs. The cells most important for fighting off pathogens (which include viruses, bacteria, and other harmful organisms) are white blood cells. These are specialized to “go to war” for your body when something invades and tries to make you sick. In a healthy immune system, white blood cells are found in typical amounts and can do their jobs effectively. Antibodies – proteins that help single out pathogens – are also vital in the immune system. When the body has enough suitable antibodies, it can fight another day with a full arsenal.
However, in someone who is immunosuppressed, the number of fighting white blood cells and antibodies is lower than it should be. The immune system is suppressed when there is a limited number of soldiers. When suppression occurs, infections can become worse because the body cannot respond as quickly or as effectively.
Think of it this way: if a building is on fire, and 20 firefighters show up to the scene to put it out, they have many hands on deck to do the job. However, if only five show up, that fire will be a lot harder to put out. This is what it’s like if your immune system is suppressed.
The immune system can be suppressed temporarily, but in that case, the number of white blood cells and antibodies returns to normal after the cause of suppression has cleared. Chronic immune suppression, however, lasts for a much longer time and is harder to remedy. Typically, a person is considered to have chronic immune suppression if they experience signs and symptoms for three months or more.
What are the symptoms of a suppressed immune system?
There are some typical signs of a suppressed immune system that you use to gauge whether or not you should see your doctor. Some of the most notable symptoms include:
- Frequent infections
- High fevers
- The need for several courses of antibiotics in one calendar year
Additional symptoms will vary depending on what is causing the immune suppression. For example, if you’re feeling body aches and pains alongside the typical signs of immunosuppression, you may have an underlying infection.
An autoimmune disease, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissues in the body, can also lead to other signs and symptoms, such as:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Rashes on the skin
It’s important to note that underlying causes of immunosuppression can vary widely, so it’s always important to take note of all symptoms you experience if you suspect your immune system may not be working as hard as it should.
What causes immune suppression?
There are so many possible causes of immune suppression. They are divided into three categories: diseases/health disorders and infections, medications, and lifestyle.
Certain diseases can drive immune suppression because of how they affect the immune system’s ability to perform its job. Some possible diseases that lead to immune suppression include:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Sickle cell disease
Medications can also suppress the immune system. Often, these are designed to do just that to help treat conditions in which the immune system is attacking healthy parts of the body. These drugs are referred to as immunosuppressants and lessen the strength of the immune system in the hopes that it will stop attacking the body. These medications are also used to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients.
Finally, lifestyle factors can also drive immunosuppression, such as:
- Long-term alcohol misuse
- Drug use
Having chronic immune suppression leaves the body susceptible to infections and disease, meaning it can be quite hard to cope with. If you experience any of the above symptoms and are unsure of the cause, speak to your doctor. They can help determine if your immune system is to blame and assist you in figuring out how to remedy the situation.
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