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The environment in which we live is full of germs. These can be bacteria, viruses or fungi. It is important to note that not all of these germs are harmful to humans. Some germs, are essential for human life and some of these germs even serve to protect us from other disease-causing germs. However, many of these germs are harmful to humans and can cause infections. Most people will recover from many of these infections without the need for additional medications. Some people however, experience more significant infections or recurrent infections that do require medical attention. Usually, these infections respond promptly to anti-infective medications such as antibiotics.
The number and severity of infections vary from person to person and depend on numerous factors including the person’s age, exposure history, lifestyle exposures (e.g., direct or indirect exposure to tobacco smoke), etc. Some infectious agents are quite common and easily passed from person to person such as the common cold. Other infectious agents are rare or not easily transferred between individuals and infections associated with these germs are uncommon. Frequent/recurrent infections, persistent infections and unusually severe infections could indicate a problem with the immune system such as an immune deficiency. An allergist/immunologist is trained to evaluate and treat patients with these infection and immunity issues.
When an immune deficiency is genetic or hereditary, it is considered a primary immune deficiency. When an immune deficiency state has developed in an individual secondary to another factor (medications, infections, chemical exposures, anatomic abnormalities) it is considered a secondary immune deficiency.
When to consider an immune deficiency:
People with an immune deficiency tend to get the same types of infections as other people such as ear infections, sinus infections and pneumonia. With certain, more rare types of immune deficiency unusual skin infections, joint infections and meningitis can be seen. Immune deficient individuals tend to get more frequent and/or more severe infections; more complications from their infections; and require more aggressive treatment for infections such as repeated courses of antibiotics. Immune deficiencies can show up at any age however, more serious immunodeficiencies tend to become apparent in the first years of life. A primary care or family physician, and an allergist/immunologist can help decide if a persons infection issues warrant further investigation into possible immune deficiency.
How are immune deficiencies diagnosed and treated:
There are four main branches to the immune system. Each branch plays an important role in the defense against infection and combating infections when present. An allergist/immunologist will take a careful history, perform a physical examination and may very well request specialized blood tests be performed to evaluate the immune system. Once an allergy/immunology specialist has diagnosed an immune deficiency, treatment specific for that particular condition will be started. Treatment likely would include treating any current infection; and beginning a variety of disease-specific interventions and therapies to minimize infections, speed recovery and strengthen the immune system.