The immune system is the body's defense against infections. It's designed to attack dangerous organisms and to help keep us healthy.
How the immune system works
When viruses or bacteria (called antigens) infect an otherwise healthy body, the immune system works to get rid of them. B lymphocytes trigger the production of antibodies, which attach to specific antigens on the virus or bacteria. These antibodies signal to T cells where to find the infection to be destroyed. This system offers the body immunity against disease.
Association between autoimmunity and immunodeficiency
Immunodeficiency is when the immune system doesn't respond adequately to infection. Autoimmunity is when the immune system is overactive and responds to healthy cells as though they were foreign.
There may be an association between the two conditions. Not all people with immunodeficiency will develop autoimmunity, and vice versa - not all people with autoimmunity develop immunodeficiency. However, deficiencies in parts of the immune system may trigger the development of an autoimmune disease. The association could be due to a compromised immune system that can't fight off foreign cells adequately, causing autoimmune symptoms or genetic factors that may predispose a person to both autoimmunity and immunodeficiency.
Signs and causes of immunodeficiency
People with immunodeficiency have infections that come back regularly or are hard to cure. Signs that you may have an immunodeficiency may include recurrent ear or sinus infections, frequent viral infections, a constant need for antibiotics to clear infections, persistent fungal infection, or a family history of immunodeficiency. You should let an immunologist evaluate you if you think you might have a compromised immune system.
Several conditions, including age, can compromise the immune system:
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
A chronic condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
A drug treatment used to kill fast-growing cells in your body, including white blood cells that are an essential part of the immune system.
Cancers like leukemia and lymphoma
Cancerous white blood cells crowd out the functioning white blood cells.
Autoimmune diseases like myasthenia gravis or lupus
Autoimmune conditions that attack the immune system itself.
Rare congenital disorders
May compromise the immune system and cause immunodeficiency.
As you age, immune function declines due to genetic and environmental factors.
Signs and causes of autoimmunity
With autoimmunity, the immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign. Early signs of many autoimmune conditions may include fatigue, achy muscles, swelling, low-grade fever, difficulty concentrating, numbness or tingling in your extremities, hair loss, or skin rashes. You should let a rheumatologist (joints), gastroenterologists (GI tract), endocrinologist (glands), or dermatologist (skin) evaluate you if you have symptoms of an autoimmune condition.
Doctors aren't entirely sure why the immune system, which is supposed to defend the body from harmful viruses and bacteria, sometimes turns against the body's healthy tissues. Some scientists think a viral or bacterial infection might trigger the response, while others believe it may be a genetic predisposition. A combination of factors, including heredity, sex, or age, may determine your likelihood of developing autoimmunity.
Immunodeficiency is treated case-by-case depending on the condition, but treatment typically includes antibiotics and immunoglobulin therapy. Autoimmunity isn't curable, but medications can help to manage inflammation and symptoms. Eating a nutrient-rich diet and making lifestyle modifications may also help.
If I have Hashimoto's, am I immunodeficient?
If you have an autoimmune thyroid disease like Hashimoto's thyroiditis, you are not necessarily immunodeficient.
However, sometimes people with an autoimmune condition develop more than one, called polyautoimmunity. So, if you have Hashimoto's, you may be at higher risk of developing another autoimmune condition that does cause immunodeficiencies like myasthenia gravis or lupus.
Similarly, some autoimmune conditions like psoriasis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, and alopecia areata are treated with immunosuppressant drugs. Immunosuppressants suppress the immune system to reduce the autoimmune reaction, possibly causing immunodeficiency.
A note from Paloma Health
Our team of doctors and nutritionists want you to feel your absolute best. If you suspect thyroid autoimmunity, our at-home thyroid test kit can help you understand how your thyroid is working and if there is a need for further evaluation.