Skip to main content

Explainer: What Does Immunocompromised Mean?

If someone has a weakened immune system, they’re more vulnerable to infection and may need to take extra precautions, even with the decreasing prevalence of COVID-19.

woman wearing an N95 face mask

The term “immunocompromised” was added to the common vocabulary during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what exactly does it mean to be immunocompromised and how does a person become immunocompromised in the first place?

A person can be immunocompromised due to internal or external factors, said Dr. Vai Katkade, CSL Senior Director, Medical Affairs, Immunology. Some individuals, such as immunodeficiency patients, are born with a defective immune system that results in an immunocompromised state. However, the majority of immunocompromised individuals acquire the condition following various infections or in response to treatment for certain diseases with medications called immunosuppressants, he said.

Immunosuppressants include chemotherapy, which is given to fight tumor cells, but because it may be non-specific, it affects non-cancer cells as well, rendering these patients into an immunocompromised state, Katkade said. Another example is after a transplantation, patients may be given immunosuppressant medications to avoid rejection of the transplant.

What’s it like to be immunocompromised?

With a weakened immune system, the body can’t fight off infections as well or as quickly as someone with a healthy immune system. That means people who are immunocompromised often can suffer minor symptoms, like lingering colds, or more serious ones, like frequent and sometimes resistant infections. Other symptoms include fatigue and wounds that may be slow to heal.

How can those who are immunocompromised manage their condition?

The immunocompromised can take common sense precautions to stay healthy. They include good practices for anyone looking to avoid getting sick: eating well, getting enough sleep, regularly exercising and washing hands.

Get advice if you are wearing a mask when others are not.

For some people, including those with immunodeficiency conditions, doctors may advise plasma-based treatments like immunoglobulin that may help strengthen the immune system and ward off infections.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the immunocompromised?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, people who are immunocompromised do have a higher risk of getting severely sick with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The CDC developed vaccine guidelines for immunocompromised people, who could receive additional vaccines and boosters.

In those guidelines, updated in May 2023, the CDC continues to urge people who are immunocompromised to take precautions, including wearing a face covering, avoiding crowded areas and washing hands often.

Learn more about immunodeficiency diseases.