In our blog “What are the signs of a weak immune system,” we discuss what makes an immune system weaker and how you can tell if your immune system is compromised (link here to our blog). We defined a weak immune system as the following:
“When your immune system is weak, it fails to defend your body against harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancer cells. Consequently, bacterial, viral, and fungal infections can develop and your body becomes more susceptible to lymphoma as well as other types of cancer.”
Signs of a weak immune system include ongoing digestive issues, recurring infections, allergic reactions and sensitivity to certain foods, and impaired healing.
In this blog, we’ll review common immune system diseases that can result from a weak immune system, then explore causes, symptoms, and treatment options.
What Are the Types of Immune System Diseases?
Two of the most common forms of immune system disorders are autoimmune disorder and immune deficiency. These disorders result from a case of mistaken identity when your body has a hard time differentiating normal from abnormal activity.
Autoimmune disease results in immune overactivity. It causes the body to mistake its own tissue for a pathogen (an invasive substance such as bacteria that can cause disease). As a result, the immune system attacks and damages non-invasive substances, causing more harm than good.
Immune deficiency disease results in immune underactivity. The body misses signs that a substance is invasive and fails to fight it off, making it more vulnerable to infection.
When Disease Weakens the Immune System
Think of the first time you caught the flu. When you experience the symptoms of the flu, it means that you’ve been exposed to and infected by a virus. Remember how bad that first flu was compared to flues you’ve caught later in your adulthood? When our bodies are young, our immune systems are less developed. Our bodies haven’t been exposed to many pathogens and don’t know how to efficiently fight them off.
As you grow, so does your immune system. The adult body is able to easily recognize viruses it has been infected with in the past and can thus quickly create an immune response to fight them off and prevent illness. For the most part, your immune system gets tougher every time it encounters a new pathogen. However, certain pathogens can weaken the immune system rather than strengthen it, sometimes causing longer-term damage.
One example of a virus that has long-term effects is HIV. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “HIV, which causes AIDS, is an acquired viral infection that destroys important white blood cells and weakens the immune system. People with HIV/AIDS become seriously ill with infections that most people can fight off. These infections are called ‘opportunistic infections’ because they take advantage of weak immune systems.”
When the Immune System Causes the Illness
Diseases of the immune system come in two forms:
1. Primary immunodeficiency: This disorder is usually present at birth and is generally inherited. It typically appears during early childhood, though symptoms can sometimes remain dormant until adulthood. Primary immune deficiencies are relatively rare, but if you suspect you might have one, find out if it runs in your family or consult a doctor.
2. Secondary immunodeficiency: This disorder usually develops later in life and is often the product of another disease, such as diabetes. Secondary immunodeficiency can also result from HIV. These are more common than primary immunodeficiencies, but remember, if you’re struggling with a secondary type, don’t feel alone. There are many informative resources out there that advise you on how to minimize the effects. It also helps to develop healthy habits to improve your health overall.
Immune System Disorder Symptoms
Common immune system disorder symptoms include the following:
- Thrush, a fungal infection of the mouth
- Canker sores
- Chronic gum disease (gingivitis)
- Frequent ear and skin infections
- Fever and chills
- Unexpected weight gain or weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Infants or young children may have chronic diarrhea and stunted growth
Keep in mind that the severity of these symptoms depends on the duration of the infection, so if you’re experiencing any it's best to get treatment quickly. When it comes to kids, it’s especially important to be alert for any of these symptoms as their immune systems are less developed.
Common Immune System Disorders
When the immune system isn't functioning properly, it can also become overactive, creating allergic reactions and attacking beneficial cells that are mistaken for antigens. Here’s a list of immune system diseases, which are referred to as autoimmune diseases:
- Graves' disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Hashimoto thyroiditis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Addison's disease
- Progressive systemic sclerosis
- Sjögren's syndrome
- Glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidneys)
- And more
For more information about autoimmune disease, autoimmune overactivity, or an overactive immune system, check out our blog on this topic.
How Can You Protect Yourself from Immune System Disease?
Once you acquire HIV, it stays with you for life. That’s why it’s important to take preventative measures. HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids, so avoid putting yourself in close contact with others unless you know they’ve been tested and are HIV free. So what else can you do to prevent immune system diseases in general?
Take Immune Boosting Supplements
Another thing you can do to protect yourself from immune system diseases is to take immune-boosting supplements. These will make your immune system stronger and better at fighting off sickness in general. You can read more about important immune-boosting supplements here (insert button linking to immune supplements blog).
In general, long-lasting illnesses weaken the immune system over time, especially ones that require frequent use of antibiotics or difficult treatments such as chemotherapy. This is not to say that you shouldn’t use antibiotics if you have a condition that requires it. Antibiotics can be essential to helping you recover, and in some cases, they can even be lifesaving. Examples of antibiotics, including their uses and the effects they have on the immune system, can be found here (insert link). However, it's important to take into account the effect that medicines have on our bodies.
As we’ve discussed, your immune system gets tougher each time it fights off a new pathogen (just like your muscles after a good workout). When you take medication, your immune system gets a boost, making the process more painless, but this also prevents it from getting stronger by doing the work itself. If you take medicine constantly, your immune system will become dependent on it over time and lose the ability to fight off pathogens on its own.
Weigh Your Options
If you’re faced with a choice between medication and natural methods, do a cost-benefit analysis: if you have a serious condition, take the medication your doctor prescribes. If you are suffering from a less severe illness such as a cold, try to recover naturally by taking organic supplements and resting.
If you do have a condition that requires you to take prescription meds or to undergo treatment, don’t worry. Even if these factors weaken your immune system, you can rebuild its strength after your treatment by taking care of your body. Doing things like taking multivitamin supplements (link vitamin blog here) and getting plenty of rest will help your immune system get its strength back.
Even fully healthy adults should take care of their immune systems by adopting healthy habits. Unhealthy habits such as excessive drinking, smoking, and eating only non-nutritious foods can result in health problems such as diabetes, chronic renal failure, or accelerated aging (and we all know we’re not getting any younger!).
How Can You Manage Immune System Disease?
Many immune system disorder symptoms can be controlled if they are addressed early. For example:
- HIV: Again, there are preventative measures you can take such as having safe sex and not sharing needles to decrease your chances of contracting HIV. If you already have HIV, antiretroviral drugs can help limit the effects of the virus.
- Cancer: Effective treatment usually restores the immune system to full function after recovery.
- Diabetes: Symptoms of diabetes can be controlled by careful regulation of your diet and blood sugar levels.
Good health and hygiene are also important for building, maintaining, and protecting the immune system. See the complete guide to the immune system and some easy ways you can boost your immune system here (link to the complete guide blog boost your immune system).
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