If you’ve ever heard a sneeze at the other end of a movie theater and worried that you were going to catch a cold, you may be suffering from an immunodeficiency disorder.
It isn’t uncommon for patients to go years complaining of “feeling sick” (general malaise, fatigue, nausea, headaches, etc.) and being labeled hypochondriacs before receiving a diagnosis. Depending on family and personal medical history, doctors can order specific blood tests that can help pinpoint an immunodeficiency disorder. Finally getting the answer to “what is wrong with me?” can be freeing and vindicating.
Immunodeficiency disorders weaken the immune system’s ability to fight bacteria, viruses, fungi and cancer cells. A healthy immune system creates antibodies to fight off viruses, bacteria and other antigens. Healthy body cells have proteins that are considered antigens, but under ordinary conditions, these antigens are recognized as normal and accepted.
Immunity to alien antigens is usually developed by exposure or immunizations, and the body’s cells unite to protect against these harmful intruders. People who suffer from Epstein-Barr virus, chronic fatigue syndrome and nutritional deficiencies will develop more pervasive immunodeficiency disorders.
Approximately one-quarter of patients who have immunodeficiency disorders also have an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the antigens of healthy cells.
Many people automatically think of AIDS when they think of weakened immune systems, but that is only one of many; AIDS is the most virulent and serious of all the autoimmune disorders. AIDS develops after human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, destroys CD4-positive T cells (white blood cells), which are crucial to the body’s natural defense mechanism.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, autoimmune disorders affect more than 23 million Americans. A few of the most common autoimmune disorders are multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, lupus, celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. It’s possible to have more than one autoimmune disorder at the same time. Some other known disorders include Addison’s disease, dermatomyositis, Graves’ disease, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Hashimoto’s disease, myasthenia gravis, pernicious anemia, reactive arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome.
Symptoms vary between patients based on the type of disorder and their overall health history but may include fatigue, fever, joint pain, rashes and a general feeling of illness. After a physical exam by the doctor, blood tests and urinalysis may be conducted. Treatments may be recommended to help control the body’s ability to recognize healthy protein and antigens and continue to fight outside bacteria, viruses and toxins.
Anti-rejection drugs are often prescribed for transplant patients to allow the body to tolerate and avoid attacking the new organ. Immunosuppressant drugs may be prescribed when autoimmune disorders such as lupus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and alopecia areata are present to help suppress the inner-body attacks. Some common immunosuppressant drugs are corticosteroids (such as prednisone) and nonsteroidal drugs such as azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, mycophenolate, sirolimus and tacrolimus.
Patients who are prescribed anti-rejection and immunosuppressant medications need to be careful about contracting infections and be proactive about contacting their doctors if they develop any signs of doing so. Over-the-counter cold, flu or pain medications may make you feel better temporarily but in reality are simply masking the cause of your discomfort.
A healthy diet is one of the best defenses of maintaining your body’s natural immune system. Nutrients to be included in a basic diet include protein, vitamins A, C and E and zinc. Other additions to enhance the body’s defenses should include vitamin B-6, folic acid, selenium and iron, as well as both prebiotics and probiotics.
Some over-the-counter supplements, though not proven (in most cases), that may increase the body’s ability to ward off infections include vitamin supplements, herbal mixes and some popular and self-named immunity booster blends; speak with your doctor before adding over-the-counter mixes to your daily regimen to make sure they won’t cause an overdose or counteract other medications. The best way to enhance your immunity is through a healthy diet; the guidance of a nutritionist may be advised.
Living with the unknown of an immunodeficiency disorder can be frightening, disorienting and frustrating. Getting the proper medical advice, having knowledge and joining support groups can help.