What Does It Mean to Be Immunocompromised?

Health Education
February 20, 2023
3 min read
What Does It Mean to Be Immunocompromised?

One frequently discussed topic during the COVID-19 pandemic was the particular risk the virus posed to immunocompromised people. If you hadn’t heard the term before, you may be wondering, what does it mean to be immunocompromised? How can being immunocompromised impact your life? What steps can you take to ensure safety? The answers to these and more questions follow.

What Does Immunocompromised Mean?

The term itself is quite broad. Generally speaking, it refers to individuals with weak or weakened immune systems that make them more vulnerable to infections. Being immunocompromised usually means a person is suffering from another disease or underlying condition impacting their immune health.

It combines the prefix “immuno-” being of the immune system, with the word “compromised.” Being immunocompromised makes a person exceptionally vulnerable to common infections and requires more vigilance against uncommon ones.


An immunocompromised person may also be suffering from immunodeficiency. For most immunocompromised people, this deficiency is acquired as a result of another condition or treatment. There is a wide range of conditions associated with immunodeficiency, including cancer and AIDS. Some people, however, are also born with compromised immune systems as a result of genetic conditions.

Age and External Factors

People can be immunocompromised for many reasons. Age, the presence of a metabolic disorder like diabetes, a side-effect of cancer treatments, or cancer itself can create immunodeficiency. For cancer patients, this most often is because their white blood cells are impaired in either number or function. Chemotherapy treatments can also intentionally reduce immune function before a stem cell transplant, making them immunocompromised.

What Defines a Person as Immunocompromised? Are There Levels to Being Immunocompromised?

There’s no scale or objective standard for determining whether or not a person is immunocompromised. Some professionals use a count of white blood cells called neutrophils as an indicator of risk. One such study done by Dr. Gerald Bodley showed an increased risk to patients whose neutrophil count dropped below 1000 cells/microliter. Another white blood cell, the T-cell, can be used to show how immunocompromised AIDS patients are.

Treatment Options for Immunocompromised Diseases

There are several courses of treatment for immunocompromised diseases. In cancer patients, the primary focus is the treatment and remission of cancer. However, as part of that recovery, people are given donor white blood cells called granulocytes. These eventually help replenish a healthy immune cell count for some immunocompromised people. 

For many immunocompromised people, the best options are preventative ones, especially with ongoing conditions. Wearing a mask and avoiding sick people are activities many of us have engaged in during the pandemic. If you’re immunocompromised, COVID-19 is just one of the diseases you need to be aware of.

Immunocompromised patients may want to ask their doctors about which activities pose a risk to their health. Even a hobby as innocuous as gardening might put immunocompromised people at a greater risk for exposure to fungal infection. With a bit of extra awareness of these potential risks, it’s still possible for immunocompromised people to live fully.

How can healthcare providers assist immunocompromised individuals in determining the appropriate vaccines for them?

Healthcare providers play a crucial role in guiding immunocompromised individuals to the appropriate vaccines for them. By working closely with their healthcare providers, immunocompromised individuals can receive personalized recommendations on which vaccines are suitable for their condition.

This process often involves ongoing discussions and assessments to address their unique health needs, treatment plans, and any potential risks associated with certain vaccines.

By maintaining continuous communication with healthcare providers, we can make necessary adjustments to ensure immunocompromised individuals receive the most effective and safe vaccination schedule, tailored to their specific health circumstances.

Which vaccines should be avoided by individuals who are immunocompromised?

Individuals who are immunocompromised should avoid certain vaccines, including those for chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella (often in a combined MMR vaccine), smallpox, mpox, flu nasal spray, and oral poliovirus vaccines. It is essential for immunocompromised individuals to consult healthcare providers to determine which vaccinations are safe for them.

Why is it important for immunocompromised individuals to receive vaccinations?

It is crucial for immunocompromised individuals to receive vaccinations because these vaccines are essential in preparing even a weakened immune system to defend against potential threats. People with compromised immune systems are at higher risk for COVID-19 reinfection, so keeping up with vaccinations is particularly important for their protection. 

By teaching the immune system to fight infections, vaccines can help safeguard both the immunocompromised individual and those around them. Additionally, individuals with severely weakened immune systems may require multiple vaccine doses to ensure sufficient protection. 

Overall, vaccinations are known to be safe and effective tools in bolstering immune responses, ultimately helping to protect both vaccinated individuals and the wider community.

What can individuals who are immunocompromised do to treat the underlying cause affecting their immune system?

Individuals who are immunocompromised can address the underlying cause affecting their immune system by first determining what is compromising the immune system. Treatment options may involve therapies aimed at addressing the root cause of the immunocompromised. 

Immunologists or allergists may recommend a range of interventions, including infusions, injection medications, and antibiotics that can help support the immune system in its efforts to protect against infections. 

It is essential for individuals with compromised immune systems to work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to their specific condition(s) and needs. Regular monitoring and adjustment of treatment strategies may be necessary to manage the underlying cause effectively and enhance immune function.

How do organ transplants lead to immunocompromised states and what precautions are taken?

Organ transplants can result in a state of immunocompromise due to the body's natural response to recognizing the transplanted organ as foreign and potentially rejecting it. To prevent rejection, physicians prescribe medication to suppress the immune system in patients undergoing organ transplants.

Maintaining a low level of immune response minimizes the risk of the body attacking the transplanted organs. The body's ability to fight off infections and diseases can weaken due to this constant need for immunosuppression.

Patients who have undergone organ transplants must carefully manage their immunosuppressive therapy to ensure the transplanted organ remains viable while balancing the risks associated with a weakened immune system.

What are autoimmune disorders and how do they impact the immune system?

Autoimmune disorders occur when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues and organs as if they are threats. Instead of solely targeting harmful invaders, the immune system becomes overactive and attacks tissues, organs, and cells that are essential for the body's normal functioning.

This mistaken attack leads to inflammation and damage in various parts of the body, causing conditions like Psoriasis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and others.

To manage these disorders, doctors often prescribe immunosuppressants to reduce inflammation and normalize the immune system's activity levels, thereby preventing further damage to healthy tissues and organs.

How does HIV weaken the immune system and what are the treatment options?

HIV weakens the immune system by targeting and destroying a particular type of white blood cell known as CD4 cells or helper T-cells. If left untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS, causing severe immune deficiency.

The key to managing HIV involves daily antiretroviral therapy (ART) medications. These drugs are essential in making HIV untransmittable and undetectable in the blood, effectively reducing the viral load to levels where transmission is highly improbable. Additionally, ART treatment plays a crucial role in slowing down HIV's ability to further weaken the immune system.

By following a consistent and well-controlled medication regimen, individuals with HIV can maintain a functioning immune system and overall good health, thanks to the effectiveness and accessibility of modern HIV medications.

What are primary immunodeficiencies and how do they affect individuals?

Primary immunodeficiencies are disorders that individuals can be born with where their immune system does not work effectively due to genetic mutations. These mutations can impact the functioning of different parts of the immune system, ranging from the complete absence of specific immune cell lines to partial dysfunction that may not be apparent until later in life.

This means that individuals with primary immunodeficiencies have impaired innate immunity, which is the basic level of protection that all individuals are born with. Estimates place the prevalence of primary immunodeficiencies around 1 in 1,200 people in the U.S. In essence, primary immunodeficiencies affect individuals by compromising their ability to mount a proper immune response to pathogens and other potentially harmful substances.

This can lead to recurrent infections, increased susceptibility to illnesses, and, in more severe cases, serious health complications. Depending on the specific type of primary immunodeficiency and the extent of immune system compromise in each individual, the impact of these disorders can vary widely.

What are secondary immunodeficiencies and how do they differ from primary immunodeficiencies?

Secondary immunodeficiencies are conditions that impair specific parts of the immune system, hindering its ability to effectively combat infections. These deficiencies can develop later in life due to a variety of factors, such as infections, medications, or underlying diseases like cancer and autoimmune disorders.

Unlike primary immunodeficiencies, which are congenital and result from genetic mutations, secondary immunodeficiencies are acquired over time and can disrupt the immune system's learning and adaptive responses.

Secondary immunodeficiencies develop later in life as a result of external factors that weaken the immune system, whereas primary immunodeficiencies are present from birth and involve genetic abnormalities affecting immune cell function.

Both types of immunodeficiencies can lead to increased vulnerability to infections, but they differ in their underlying causes and developmental timelines.

What are the causes and conditions of a compromised immune system?

Various causes and conditions can lead to a compromised immune system. We can broadly categorize it into primary immunodeficiencies and secondary immunodeficiencies.

Primary immunodeficiencies encompass a wide range of conditions, with some being more severe due to the absence of crucial cell lines in the immune system, while others may have partially functioning immune systems that may not manifest until later in life.

On the other hand, specific conditions like HIV, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and organ transplants typically cause the acquisition of secondary immunodeficiencies later in life. These factors can significantly impact the immune system's ability to protect the body from infections and diseases.

Protect Your Health: Schedule Your Consultation Today with BASS Medical Group

Having a compromised immune system doesn’t preclude anyone from living a full or active life. By taking some common sense preventative measures, immunocompromised individuals can lead as normal of a life as possible. This is especially true for those recovering from a range of immunocompromising illnesses.

If your immune system is compromised, it’s time to seek the best medical care available. BASS Medical Group is home to professional and compassionate board-certified specialists. Our providers are here to help with every step of your treatment and recovery. Check out our COVID-19 resources to see tips, information, and other preventive steps you can take.