Your immune system plays an important role in protecting you from serious infections. It has many complex components that are activated in different ways to kill bacteria, viruses and other potential invaders. Different problems with the immune system can lead to various medical problems.
If your immune system is weakened in some way, it may not be able to fight off certain infections. This may be due to a genetic problem at birth that prevents parts of your immune system from working properly. Certain subsequent medical problems may also lead to a weakened immune system.
Sometimes the immune system can become hyperactive due to something in the environment. This can lead to issues like food allergies, eczemaallergic asthma, etc.
Other times, the immune system may inappropriately activate a part of your own body. These are called autoimmune diseases. The symptoms and nature of autoimmune diseases depend on the part of the body that is attacked.
This article will discuss some of the major problems with the immune system and the diseases that can result.
Immune system disorders that lead to a weakened immune system
Certain types of immune system problems mean you won’t be able to fight off infections as easily. These can be divided into primary and secondary immune system disorders.
primary immune system disease
A primary immune system disorder is a rare genetic problem that you inherit from your parents. They affect different parts of your immune system, so they can all cause slightly different patterns and severity of symptoms.
About 200 different rare diseases fall into this category. A few examples are:
- Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID): A life-threatening disease that causes two types of serious problems lymphocytes (Immune cells): T cells and B cells
- Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome (WAS): Causes prolonged bleeding risk and increased risk of infection, mainly affecting newborn males
- Common Variable Immune Deficiency (CVID): Causes an individual to fail to produce normal amounts of antibodies and may also lead to frequent bacterial and viral infections
Some of these primary immune deficiencies also appear to increase the risk of certain cancers and certain autoimmune diseases.
Secondary (Acquired) Immunodeficiency Disease
Unlike primary immune system disorders, these disorders are not inherited from birth. An important example is AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) caused by the transmission of untreated HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). AIDS makes a person vulnerable to life-threatening infections that unaffected people can easily fight off.
Other types of medical conditions may make a person more susceptible to certain infections, although not to this extent. These medical conditions include:
- severe burns
People who take certain drugs that block the immune system (called immunosuppressants) are also more susceptible to certain infections. For example, this applies to some people undergoing cancer treatment.
Older adults also tend to have poorer immune responses than younger, healthy adults, making them more susceptible to serious infections.
What does immunocompromised mean
Atopic immune system problems
Atopic diseases are another group of diseases caused by problems with the immune system. People with these disorders tend to produce abnormally large amounts of certain antibodies—protective proteins produced by the immune system—in response to specific triggers.
People with these conditions have an overreaction to certain substances in the environment, such as pollen, dust mites, and food allergens. This leads to an overactive release of a specific type of antibody called IgE (immunoglobulin E) and associated immune system changes. Ultimately, this can lead to symptoms of these conditions.
Some key examples of atopic immune system problems are:
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis): causes an itchy rash
- Asthma: inflammation of the airways that causes wheezing and difficulty breathing
- Hay fever (allergic rhinitis): causes dripping roses and red eyes
- Food allergies: cause rash and potential airway narrowing
Inheriting certain genes makes you more likely to develop one or more of these diseases, but unknown environmental factors may also play a role.
Is your immune system making your asthma worse?
A third group of immune system-related problems are autoimmune diseases, which may affect 3%–5% of people. In these diseases, parts of your immune system begin to attack parts of your own body abnormally.
For example, some of your immune cells may inappropriately form antibodies against proteins in part of your own body. Different parts of the body are abnormally targeted to different types of autoimmune diseases. This can lead to pain, inflammation, and decreased organ function in these areas.
Scientists have described nearly 100 different autoimmune diseases. Some of the more common are:
- Type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes): causes low levels of the hormone insulin and very high blood sugar
- Autoimmune thyroid disease (including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease)
- Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus) and Sjogren’s Syndrome: causes joint pain and other problems
- Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis: Causes joint pain and skin problems
- Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis): causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, and related symptoms
- Multiple Sclerosis: Causes muscle problems, vision problems, and other problems
- Celiac disease: causes gluten intolerance and weight loss
- Addison’s disease: causes poor adrenal function
Causes and Risk Factors of Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases occur due to a variety of complex causes that are not fully understood.
For most autoimmune diseases, the genes you inherit from your parents are important, but not everything. Compared to diseases such as primary immune diseases, one identical twin may develop an autoimmune disease, but the other may not, although their risk is greatly increased.
Environmental factors also appear to play a role, although researchers don’t fully understand these. Some factors that may be involved are:
- certain pre-existing infections (eg, rheumatic fever)
- previous damage to the area
- Nutritional factors (eg, low vitamin D levels or gluten exposure)
- exposure to toxins (such as cigarette smoke)
- Lack of healthy bacteria in the gut
All of these differences may play a role in the immune system inappropriately targeting and attacking parts of your body.
Autoimmune disease and biological sex
Most autoimmune diseases are also more common in cisgender women than in cisgender men, although some are not. For example, lupus is nine times more common in women than in men. Researchers aren’t sure why this is the case. But it may have something to do with the way hormones like estrogen interact with the immune system.
Learn more: Why are autoimmune diseases more common in women?
have more than one immune problem
Unfortunately, some people have more than one problem with their immune system. For example, people with one autoimmune disease have an increased chance of developing another autoimmune disease.
The same is true for people with atopic immune problems, who often have more than one. Some people with primary immune system problems have autoimmune-related diseases.
Additionally, some of the treatments used for atopic immune diseases and autoimmune problems are immunosuppressants. This means that when you take certain infections, your immune system may not be able to fight normal infections.
What is Multiple Autoimmune Syndrome?
Diagnosing immune-related problems can be tricky. In some cases, symptoms may be subtle and may ebb and flow over time. Some immune-related problems have similar overlapping symptoms.
For many immune-related problems, no single test can prove you have the disease. Instead, your clinician will summarize the clinical picture from your symptoms, medical history, examinations, and related tests. Sometimes these disorders can only be diagnosed after other underlying causes have been ruled out.
The tests needed will depend on your symptoms and your overall medical condition. Some potential tests might include:
- Complete blood count (CBC): A general test that can reveal underlying inflammation, infection, and possible atopic immune problems.
- C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR): Both may indicate increased inflammation.
- Complement tests: These tests may provide clues about primary immunodeficiency, infection, or autoimmune disease.
- Genetic tests: These are used for primary immune diseases.
- allergy test
If an autoimmune disease is suspected, your healthcare provider may recommend that your body be tested for antibodies it produces. For example, if your symptoms suggest you may have rheumatoid arthritis, your healthcare provider may recommend a rheumatoid factor test. But the test is also sometimes positive for other autoimmune diseases.
An initial screening test is antinuclear antibodies (ANA), which can be positive under several different autoimmune conditions. If this is positive, your clinician may recommend additional antibody testing based on the clinical situation.
Depending on the situation, you may need imaging tests or other evaluations, such as X-rays, biopsy (taking a sample of tissue for testing in a lab), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
When to seek medical assistance
If there seems to be something in your body, trust your gut and get it checked. If you have new symptoms, such as increased fatigue and joint pain, get evaluated right away. You are the person who knows your body best.
Especially for symptoms that change over time, it can be helpful to keep a record that can be shared with clinicians. Pictures of the affected area can also give your healthcare provider a better understanding of your condition.
Seek medical attention for symptoms that may indicate infection, such as fever. For any life-threatening symptoms, such as sudden difficulty breathing, call 911.
Your immune system is there to protect you from serious infections. Immune system problems can lead to a variety of medical problems, including atopic and autoimmune diseases.
Sometimes the immune system becomes hyperactive due to something in the environment, which can lead to atopic disease. Common allergic diseases are asthma and eczema. Hay fever and food allergies.
The immune system may be inappropriately activated against a part of your own body. These are called autoimmune diseases. Common autoimmune diseases are rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, psoriatic arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease.
A variety of genetic and environmental factors can contribute to immune system disorders. If you experience symptoms of any of these conditions, your healthcare provider can help you determine what’s going on and give you the best treatment options.
What type of doctor treats autoimmune disease?
When you have an immune system disorder, it can take a while to get a proper diagnosis, especially if you have subtle and changing symptoms. Try to be patient, but don’t give up looking for answers.
The good news is that for many of these conditions, treatment is working better than ever. Just persevere, and you and your healthcare provider will soon find the best solution to your problem.
How to Treat Autoimmune Diseases