The world is a microscopic battleground, one we’re seemingly only aware of when our own bodies come under attack. It’s easy to take for granted all the work our immune systems do to keep us from falling victim to every dangerous microbe we come across.
Whether it’s due to genetic conditions, infections or certain medical treatments, there may come a time for each of us when our immune system may no longer be able to do its job, making us susceptible to devastating assaults. Suddenly nowhere seems safe, and every outing is a new potential source of illness. Welcome to the world of the immunocompromised.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of how hard our immune systems work each day to keep infections and illnesses from taking hold, but numerous issues can break down those defenses. Penn Medicine explains that a person’s immune system can become compromised due to a genetic condition, an acquired illness (such as HIV), an autoimmune disease or the use of immunosuppressive medications.
When the body’s defenders are weakened to the degree that they are no longer able to keep up appropriate defenses, any illness can become serious. Common infections that are generally a small blip in the scheme of things, can wreak havoc in an immunocompromised system. Even to the point of death.
The immunocompromised person is one of particular concern in this pandemic era. The CDC cautions that people with compromised immune systems are more likely to catch COVID-19 when they’re exposed. They may also experience more prolonged illness and shed the virus longer than people who have healthy systems.
More research is necessary in these areas, but in some cases, being immunocompromised could be beneficial. For example, depressed immune responses could actually protect someone against the inflammatory “cytokine storm” response that appears to kill some COVID-19 patients. Experts warn, though that without this added complication, COVID-19 could put the immunocompromised at serious risk and they should be taking particular care to avoid the virus.
Some of us might remember the “Bubble Boy,” David Vetter, who spent his 12 years of life in a NASA-designed sterile plastic enclosure until his death. We can’t all live in bubbles, however, so minimizing exposure is the next best course of action.
People with impaired immune systems, and those who have immunocompromised people in their social groups, should be minimalists about venturing outside the home. During the pandemic, when they do go out, it’s essential to take all precautions to reduce the risk of catching infections, such as wearing effective masks, properly distancing and washing the hands regularly.
It’s important to steer clear of large groups of people; having most essentials delivered to avoid supermarket crowds may be helpful. Never allow someone who’s potentially ill to enter the home of an immunocompromised person.
In an ordinary, or non-pandemic, year, most people with immunocompromised bodies can live fairly normally within their necessary precautions such as hand washing and avoiding those who are ill. It's best to follow a doctor's advice and get individualized instructions, however.
Living with a compromised immune system isn’t easy. Regardless of the cause, it can make a simple day out feel like a microbial obstacle course. This issue might not affect all of us, but we can do our part to help by being considerate about our own germs when we go out and consider that our germs, even in a non-pandemic year, affect more than just ourselves. For more suggestions on how to stay safe, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about your individual medical situation.
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