What does it mean to be immunocompromised? And why does this increase your risk of coronavirus?
Immunocompromised is a term that refers to the fact that someone’s immune system isn’t as strong as it should be. Given that their immune system is not operating optimally, immunocompromised individuals are generally unable to stop an invasion and colonisation by a foreign body, including the COVID-19 virus, should they come in contact with it.
An immunocompromised system leaves people susceptible to infection, but the severe symptoms in some people are actually caused by a huge immune response that sweeps through the entire body, the reasons for which are often complex and deeply varied.
What causes compromised immune systems?
Immunodeficiencies are identified as either primary, when someone is born with a condition that directly affects their immune system – often diagnosed in early life, whilst secondary immunodeficiencies are more common and arise as a result of outside factors, such as environmental toxins and cigarette smoking, which can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system, and particularly the functioning of the lungs.
Believe it or not, poor nutrition and drug and alcohol abuse can also impair immunity, as can certain medications, age and pregnancy.
Certain illnesses can also cause immunodeficiencies including HIV infections, and cancers, whilst certain medications can bring about an immunocompromised state. These drugs are called immunosuppressants.
Those who receive organ transplants are one such group of people who are given immunosuppressants to dampen their immune system so the body cannot reject the donor transplant.
Age is also a key element to consider when considering whether your immune system may be compromised or whether it is functioning as efficiently as possible. Whilst an older person’s immunity may be weakened due to age, similarly, a newborn baby will not have had time to develop a mature immune system to protect its body against invaders. In this context, breast milk provides a great source of antibodies to help fight viruses, such as COVID-19.
So, what does this all mean?
The good news is that regardless of the severity of COVID-19, and the result of excessive immune responses, immunocompromised people don’t appear to be presenting with more severe disease than the general population.
According to information shared in a recent article on The Conversation, so far in a key hospital in Bergamo, in the red zone of the Italian COVID-19 outbreak, none of the immunocompromised patients who tested positive for coronavirus developed a severe disease.
Meanwhile, a 47-year-old woman from Wuhan who was taking steroids to suppress her autoimmune disease lupus, contracted the coronavirus and didn’t fall ill. But her compromised immune system couldn’t efficiently clear the virus and she transmitted the virus to both her father and sister before testing positive herself.
While this gives us hope that immunocompromised individuals may not be as at-risk as we first thought, they may continue to fly under the radar, picking up the virus and spreading it while remaining asymptomatic.
Immunocompromised individuals may also be at risk of losing out to coronavirus through indirect competition for treatment and the medications that allow them to lead relatively normal lives.
If you are concerned about your immune system, we recommend liaising directly with your healthcare team, which can be done so with contactless GP sessions available via Telehealth.