What does it
mean to be immunocompromised?

To be immunocompromised means to have an impaired or weakened immune system.


How to tell if you’re immunocompromised

It’s not always obvious to identify someone who’s immunocompromised. You can be born with an auto-immune condition, or acquire one throughout the course of your life (Carey, 2019). There’s a host of health conditions that, if diagnosed with one or more, you’re automatically considered to be immunocompromised. Some of these conditions take a long time to thoroughly and accurately diagnose.

What happens when you’re immunocompromised?

If you’ve been told that you’re immunocompromised, it means that your body has a reduced or non-existent ability to fight off infections and diseases (Carey, 2019). This can be caused by just one part of your immune system being weakened, or your entire immune system.

What makes up the human immune system?

Your immune system is 1 of 11 organ systems inside your body (CK-12 et al, 2018). Carey (2019) shares that the organs that make up your immune system include your:

  • Spleen.
  • Tonsils.
  • Bone marrow.
  • Lymph nodes.

These organs make and release immune cells called lymphocytes (Carey, 2019), that fight off bacterial and viral organisms that compromise your body’s ability to function as it should.

Health conditions associated with immunodeficiency

A few of the conditions included in this list are (Carey, 2019):

  • Cancer (all forms).
  • Viral hepatitis.

Other triggers for immunodeficiency include organ transplants (NCI, n.d.) severe burns and malnutrition (Carey, 2019), which is also why we share a wealth of information on nutritional intake.

HIV/AIDS and immunodeficiency

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s self-explanatory, and it used to be considered a terminal condition. Today, it’s considered a chronic condition thanks to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

ARVs support your body’s immune system, thereby improving the ratio of your protector cells to viral cells. If you follow us on Facebook, you might have noticed our recent video on the definition of a viral load, and why it’s critical to have discipline when it comes to ARVs.

Understand more about HIV and how to live a happy, healthy life when you are HIV-positive. 

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How do you treat immunodeficiency disorders?

For HIV/AIDS, there’s ARVs. For other types of conditions, there are several different ways to implement treatment (Carey, 2019):

  • Antibiotics.
  • Immunoglobulin therapy.
  • Other antiviral drugs, some specialised for immunodeficiency disorders (different to ARVs).
  • Bone marrow transplant (extreme cases for very low to non-existent lymphocyte production).

It is still possible, with a chronic immunodeficiency disorder, to live a long, healthy and happy life. It just requires the discipline to adhere to your treatment plan.

How are people diagnosed as immunocompromised?

As mentioned earlier in this article, one of more of the listed conditions being diagnosed automatically means that someone is immunocompromised. Test requirements vary from one condition to another (Carey, 2019). These processes include, but are not limited to:

  • Conducting specialised blood tests.
  • Determining cell count of immunity cells.
  • Physician’s full-body examination (external observation).
  • Specialised scopes and internal examinations.

Vaccines can also be used to test the strength of your immune system (Carey, 2019). Antibodies are counted over distinct periods of time following vaccination. If you don’t test positive for any antibodies, you could have an immunodeficiency disorder.

Caring for immunocompromised people

Whether you’re caring for a loved one or professionally serving as a caregiver, you need to be extra careful (Antin, 2020). If you know that the person requiring care is immunocompromised, there are extra steps that can be taken to prevent any transmission of opportunistic infections from you to him/her:

  • Wash your hands properly, and regularly, with soap and water.
  • If no soap is available, alcohol-based sanitisers of more than 60% concentration may be used as a replacement.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth during any process conducted for or with the person receiving care. Examples include:
    • Preparing and serving food.
    • Grooming and ablutions.
    • Physical therapy.
  • VERY IMPORTANT: Stay away from the person receiving care, if you are sick yourself!


Antin, JH. 2020. What does it mean to be immunocompromised? Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Article online. 24 March. Updated 31 March. Available at: https://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2020/03/what-does-it-mean-to-be-immunocompromised/ [Accessed 23 June 2020].

Carey, E. 2019. Immunodeficiency disorders. Healthline. Article online. 11 May. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/immunodeficiency-disorders#outlook [Accessed 22 June 2020].

CK-12, Brainard, J, and Henderson, R. 2018. CK-12 college human biology. Chapter 9, Section 4. Human organs and organ systems. Flexbooks. Published online. Available at: https://flexbooks.ck12.org/cbook/ck-12-college-human-biology-flexbook-2.0/section/9.4/primary/lesson/human-organs-and-organ-systems-chumbio [Accessed 23 June 2020]

Lexico. 2020. Definition of immunocompromised in English. Oxford. Web page online. Available at: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/immunocompromised [Accessed 22 June 2020].

National Cancer Institute. n.d. NCI dictionary of cancer terms. United States Department of Health and Human Services. Web page online. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/immunocompromised [Accessed 23 June 2020].

We all have questions.

Below are some of the answers to the most common questions around HIV. 

What is usually the first sign of HIV?

After becoming infected with HIV, most patients only experience moderate flu-like symptoms. Typically, the illness is sudden in onset and is characterised by fever, swelling of the lymph glands, a measles-like rash all over the body, ulcers in the mouth and sometimes on the genitalia.

What are the 4 stages of HIV?

  • Stage 1: Infection – Exposure to infected bodily fluids.
  • Stage 2: Asymptomatic – HIV quickly spreads and the patient becomes seropositive for HIV antibodies.
  • Stage 3: Symptomatic – The immune system is now engaged in a constant battle with the rapidly replicating virus.
  • Stage 4: AIDS – At this stage, the patient’s CD4+ count is 200 cells per mm3 or less.

How soon can HIV be detected by a blood test?

No test can detect HIV immediately after infection. The time between initial infection and a detectable viral load is called the window period. It can take anywhere from 2-12 weeks to after exposure, to detect whether you are HIV-positive or not, depending on which testing method is used.

How long does it take to show symptoms of HIV?

Following initial infection, there is a period of intense, unchecked viral replication that occurs. It usually takes 2 to 4 weeks after infection and can last about 1 to 2 weeks, after which there tends to be a slight recovery, and the infected individual is considered to be seropositive for HIV antibodies.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted from one person to another through the exchange of body fluids. The main method of transmission in South Africa is through unprotected sexual activity.

Does HIV test affect life insurance?

Being HIV-positive can affect standard life insurance policies, particularly if your status changes from HIV-negative to HIV-positive within a particular age range. That’s why AllLife covers all lives. Your HIV status doesn’t prevent you from getting cover with us.

Can HIV-positive women have children?

Yes, HIV-positive women can enjoy healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy HIV-negative babies, through the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme. PMTCT has been highly effective in reducing the HIV transmission risk to under 1%.

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