Infection Prevention in
Immunocompromised People

What is an infection?

An infection is an illness caused by germs that can make you sick. Doctors and scientists call germs microbes. Microbes are too small to see without a microscope.

There are millions of germs around you. Most don’t cause any harm. But some can if they get inside your body, where they shouldn’t be. When this happens, your immune system helps fight them. It is a defense system. Germs can cause infections anywhere in your body, like your lungs or your skin.

Most people get infections from time to time. You may feel sick or have pain while your body fights the germs. You may need to take medications. These help your immune system fight the infection. You should start to feel better once the medicines start to work.

Infections can cause a serious illness called sepsis. Instead of fighting the infection, the body starts to attack itself, the healthy cells and tissues. Sepsis can lead to severe sepsis and septic shock. Severe sepsis and septic shock can leave long-lasting health problems. They can even cause death.

What is the immune system?

The immune system helps protect you from infections. It is made up of organs, tissues, and cells all through your body, including the spleen, tonsils, bone marrow, and white blood cells.

White blood cells are proteins that fight microbes. They remember all microbes that enter the body. The white blood cells fight microbes they don’t recognize, trying to keep you from getting sick.

When the immune system doesn’t work properly

The immune system works well for most people, but not for everyone. Close to 7 million people in the United States have immune systems that don’t work well or at all, although the number could be even higher. These people can get infections more easily than they should. And they can get sicker with more severe infections.

If your immune system doesn’t work as it should, you are immunocompromised. Or you have a weakened or suppressed immune system. They mean the same thing.

Short-term and long-term weakened immune systems

Some people have a weakened immune system for just a limited time. Others live with this situation on a long-term or permanent basis.

People who have a weakened immune system for a limited time include those who:

  • Receive chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation for diseases like cancer.
  • Take medications like steroids for a long period. Steroids treat many illnesses, like asthma, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Have severe burns covering a large part of the body.
  • Are malnourished.
  • Drink too much alcohol.
  • Had a bone marrow transplant.

People who have a long-term weakened immune system include those who:

  • Have no spleen, a small organ in the abdomen (belly).
  • Have a disease or condition, like AIDS, diabetes, or lupus. These weaken immune responses.
  • Had an organ transplant.
  • Are older.
  • Are very young, especially babies born too early.

 

Steps you can take to protect yourself from infection

Everyone should be careful to avoid infections. Even healthy people who get infections can get sepsis. This is a serious problem. It can become septic shock.

People with weakened immune systems have to be very careful. They can get infections more easily than most people. Here are some steps to help you lessen your risk of getting an infection:

  • Wash your hands often. You should wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Don’t forget to clean under your nails and between your fingers.
  • If you don’t have water, use a waterless cleanser.
  • Get all vaccinations recommended by your healthcare provider. This includes the routine ones, like for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and others, like for the flu, COVID-19, and pneumonia.
  • Clean any breaks in your skin (scrapes, cuts, burns). Keep them clean and dry as they heal. Always wash your hands before touching a wound.
  • Use antibiotic ointments on open wounds, if approved by your doctor.
  • Watch for signs of infection if you have a wound. Your skin can feel warmer to touch, look red, and may have pus coming from it.
  • Wear a face mask when you are in a crowd.
  • Mention your immunocompromised status to all healthcare professionals you encounter. This includes not only doctors and nurses, but dentists, dental hygienists, physical therapists – anyone who provides care.

What to do if you have or suspect an infection

If you have a weakened immune system, ask your healthcare provider what you should do if you do become ill. Some doctors want their patients to call them directly. Others may tell their patients to go to an urgent care clinic or the emergency department. Being prepared can help reduce the risk of serious infections and sepsis.

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Read Personal Stories from Immunocompromised People

Kate Safford

The is the second (2nd) time I have survived sepsis!!! Leaving for vacation in May 2016, I was in the throes of a beginning UTI. (Sepsis and UTIs) CBC and UA w/culture completed at hospital lab and PCP notified of same. PCP started meds immediately as UTIs were typical, calling back on day 2 to change the meds. Day 3 of the trip, I developed a temp, and was woozy the next day. BP was 95/60, PCP sent me the ER. I explained to the ER doc that I have a primary immune deficiency-CVID (body doesn’t make antibodies to strep ... Read Full Story

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Pat Termini

A couple of hours before my wife Pat passed away in the ICU at her hospital, I said to her “Honey, if you have to go, I will respect your wishes, I want you to do what is best for you.” 2 hours later she passed away peacefully. I do know that she is in a much better place now, free of pain. Pat was allergic to opioid medications, which includes most everything except Tylenol. The pain from sepsis she endured those last 2 weeks must have been excruciating. Pat was a fighter. She fought squamous cell cancer for 11+ ... Read Full Story

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Annmarie Williams

Hi I am Annmarie. In 2010 I got a stomach bug and it’s changed my life. What ever the bug did affected my motility, then my gallbladder was removed. I ended up on IV nutrition in 2019. I have gastroparesis and likely severe sibo (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). In 2020 January, I had sepsis, a bad pseudomonas infection. Luckily antibiotics worked. I then had another infection in April 2020 and a yeast infection after. (Sepsis and Bacterial Infections, Sepsis and Fungal Infections) Some how I fell pregnant with twins in June but didn’t know until September when I was 18 ... Read Full Story

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Travis Bones

This is Travis’ story: Travis was a bright, energetic, adventurous 4-year-old who loved making people laugh. His million-dollar smile rarely left his face. On a Friday night, just days after his 4th birthday, he spiked a high fever. Initially, a nurse friend thought it was the flu and advised children’s fever-reducing medicine. His fever dropped, but overnight, his breathing became rapid and shallow. His pediatrician was called early Saturday morning, she too thought it was just the flu, but suggested Urgent Care could test him for strep throat. Urgent Care tested him for strep and type 1 diabetes. Both tests ... Read Full Story

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Rachel Davis

On August 3rd, 2021, I was admitted to the hospital with a breakthrough case of Covid-19. (Sepsis and COVID-19) I was fully vaccinated six months prior. My CT scan showed ground glass opacities in my right lower lung. I was blessed that my oxygen saturation was within normal limits. I was in the hospital for three weeks. Upon my discharge on 8/23/21, I stayed with a dear friend for approximately two weeks. Because of malnutrition and Covid, I believe, I was immunocompromised. I had leukopenia, low neutrophil and absolute neutrophil counts, and I was anemic. (Sepsis and Impaired Immune System) ... Read Full Story

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Funding for this campaign was provided in part by an independent educational grant from Merck & Co., Inc.