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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 to protect their health.

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?

What Immunocompromised Means

If someone is immunocompromised, it means they have a weakened immune system.

What Makes Someone Immunocompromised?

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.

What to Do If You Are Immunocompromised

People who are immunocompromised can take common sense precautions to stay healthy. They include good practices for anyone looking to avoid getting sick: eating healthy, prioritizing sleep, regularly exercising and washing your handsImmunocompromised people might choose to wear a mask though others are not.

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

Learn more about
immunodeficiency conditions and access a card immunocompromised people can print out and carry with them. The Immune Deficiency Foundation created the card so people who have immune system problems can use it if they need emergency care. The card lists the name of their immunodeficiency (there are more than 450 of them); communicates that they are a complicated patient; and includes contact info for their primary doctor who can be consulted about the patient’s care.