Symptoms of Immune System Problems
What Are Immune System Problems?
Your immune system should fight off disease and help your body heal. But your immune system can be weak, underactive, overactive, or even attack your body by mistake. Immune system problems can cause symptoms, allergic reactions, or persistent illnesses.
Dry or Gritty Eyes
Very dry eyes can be a sign of immune system problems. In Sjögren’s syndrome, your immune system dries up tears that keep eyes moist. Your eyes are dry, red, and may feel like you have grit or sand in them. You can develop blurry vision or even cornea damage.
Depression can be a sign of immune system problems. A faulty immune system can send inflammatory cells called cytokines to your brain. They lower your levels of chemicals like serotonin that lift your mood. The good news: Exercise can boost serotonin, lessen inflammation, and help ease your depression.
Eczema’s itchy rash is an allergic reaction that means your immune system is overactive. Psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis are diseases linked to a faulty immune system. Your immune system attacks your own skin cells with inflammation. This can cause red, flaky, painful blotches called plaques.
Stomach or Bowel Problems
Stomach and bowel symptoms may be signs of an immune symptom problem. Diarrhea, belly pain, bloating, and weight loss are symptoms of Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or celiac disease -- conditions driven by your immune system.
Cold Hands and Feet
Do your hands and feet turn white or blue in the cold? In Raynaud’s disease, blood flow to hands and feet may slow down in cold temperatures, causing skin to feel cold and change colors. It is an autoimmune condition. Cold hands and feet could mean your thyroid gland is underactive due to your immune system.
Your immune system can attack your hair at the root and damage it, causing alopecia areata, or hair loss. Hair may fall out in small patches on your head or anywhere on your body. Other immune system problems like plaque psoriasis on your scalp can cause patchy hair loss too.
Immune system problems can make you overly sensitive to sunlight. If you have lupus, your skin may burn easily from even brief sun exposure. Sun on your skin can cause an immune system flare-up of all lupus symptoms, so always wear hats, sunglasses, cover-ups, and high SPF sunscreen to protect yourself.
Suddenly painful, swollen, stiff joints may be a symptom of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In RA, your immune system inflames tissue lining your joints. This causes severe joint pain.
Wounds Slow to Heal
If your immune system is sluggish, minor wounds like a cut, burn, or scrape may be slow to heal. A healthy immune system reacts quickly to a wound and sends nutrients to promote healing. If your wounds take a long time to get better, your immune system may be underactive.
You Get Sick All the Time
Frequent infections like colds or flu also could be signs of an underactive immune system. If you have four or more yearly ear infections, chronic sinus infections, pneumonia twice in one year, or you need antibiotics twice a year or more often, you could have an immune deficiency.
You may feel tired after lots of activity. But if you’re wiped out often, even when you do get sleep, you may have a sluggish immune system. Fatigue is when you’re so exhausted you can’t even walk across the room. An overactive immune system may trigger inflammation that causes this severe tiredness.
What Doctors Do to Boost Their Immune Systems
Meet Our Expert 1/11
Brunilda Nazario, MD, is Lead Medical Director for WebMD. Based in New York, she’s an internist and endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in issues related to hormones). She’s certified in advanced diabetes management. She's also knowledgeable about alternative health and integrative medicine -- medicine that takes the whole person into account, including lifestyle.
Get Enough Sleep 2/11
Your daily habits are key to a healthy immune system. Sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. The best thing you can do is make sure you’re getting 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep every night. If you have trouble doing that sometimes, a short nap (of less than 30 minutes) can help make up some of the deficit.
Have a Sleep Routine 3/11
A bedtime ritual can get your body ready for sleep, which can help make sure you get enough ZZZs. Start by turning down the lights before bedtime to get your mind in a good place for sleep, then set up your pillows and pull down your bed sheets to prepare for bed. You might follow that with a bath or some chamomile tea to relax and wind down.
Be Active 4/11
Make regular exercise a part of your life. A good goal is 30 to 45 minutes a day at least 5 days a week. There'll probably be days when you don’t want to do it, but research shows that physical activity is good for your immune system. Whether it’s taking a walk, riding a bike, or lifting weights, find something you like to do and find a time every day that works for you. That'll make it easier for exercise to become a healthy habit.
Find Your Special Place 5/11
Stress can affect your immune system and your ability to fight off illness. You can help manage it by doing something you like or going somewhere that relaxes you. For example, getting outside and into nature can be a great way to stop, breathe, and rebalance yourself.
Be Mindful 6/11
A lot of us think we’re supposed to be busy all the time, but that’s not really good for us. It can be hard to just shut it off, so you need to retrain yourself to think a different way. Try to be aware of when you’re about to short-circuit. When it comes, take a step back. There are apps for your phone or programs from various organizations that can help with that.
A healthy, balanced diet gives your body the nutrients it needs to work the way it should. Your eating plan should include protein with each meal -- like fish, chicken, tofu, or beans. Get a variety of fruits and vegetables too. It’s also important to stay away from fast food, because it can cause inflammation that can hamper your immune system.
Go With Natural Sources
If you feel like you’re coming down with something, you don’t need to take supplements to give your immune system a boost. Instead of vitamin C tablets, opt for tea with ginger or honey. As we get older, our ability to fight off germs can fade a bit. If you notice that you’re getting colds more often, try getting more zinc into your diet. You can get it from things like seafood and beans.
Stay Up to Date on Vaccines
To make sure you’re doing all you can to help your immune system, it’s important to keep up with your immunizations. All adults should get an annual flu shot, a Tdap (tetanus, pertussis, and diphtheria) vaccine if they didn’t get one as a teen, and a Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster shot every 10 years. Adults older than 50 also need the vaccines that protect against shingles, meningitis, and pneumonia.
Find Your ‘Tribe’
Don’t underestimate the power of connecting with others. Socializing with people you care about can lower stress and, in turn, be good for your immune system. A weekly catch-up with family and friends can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
Influenza A and B
Herpes Simplex 1
Herpes Simplex 2 HSV-2 causes most genital herpes.
Guide to Your Immune System.
What Is It?
This network of tissues, cells, and organs first tries to keep out germs like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites and then deals with them if they manage to get in. If it senses something in your body that could be bad for you, it triggers the release of special cells. These travel to where the trouble is, attack the intruder, and help get rid of it.
How Do Infections Spread?
Your body has to be able to stop invaders that come from a lot different places. Germs can come from contact -- touching skin, having sex, and breathing in drops from someone else's sneeze or cough, for example. They can travel through blood that comes from a shared needle or an insect bite. You can also get germs from contaminated food or water.
First Line of Defense
Your skin is the most obvious one. It blocks invaders from getting into your body in the first place. Other blockers are the clear layer over the front of your eye (cornea) and specialized tissue that lines your lungs, bladder, and digestive system. A cut, sore, or burn can make an opening in any of these for a germ to get in and infect you.
Washing Germs Away
Sweat on your skin, tears in your eyes, and mucus in your nasal passages, digestive system, and a woman's vagina can stop invaders from getting in, too. These liquids your body makes not only push away dirt and germs but also have enzymes that can kill bacteria.
A network of fine tubes throughout your body collects fluid called lymph from tissues. Part of its job is to pick up dead cells and germs. Waste is filtered out at small bean-shaped lymph nodes, and the liquid goes back into your bloodstream. An infection can make the nodes swell. You may have felt them in your neck when you had a sore throat or cough.
These are markers that your immune system can recognize. Some, called human leukocyte antigens (HLA), tag your cells so your body can ID itself. Others could be part of a foreign cell or germ, or they may be a substance like food or pollen.
Innate vs. Acquired Immunity
When you're born, before your body comes across any unfamiliar antigens, it can defend itself from infection. This innate immunity comes from those barrier body parts as well as some specialized cells. Over time, your immune system "learns" other ways to protect you. Acquired immunity comes from antibodies you get from your mother in the womb or that you make in response to antigens that aren't yours -- like from a cold virus or a vaccine.
The soft, fatty stuff that lives inside your bones is where your body makes blood cells, including the various white blood cells that fight off germs.
They're part of your innate immunity, and they work by eating invaders. Neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell, are among the first responders called to a trouble spot. They digest bad cells and can trap bacteria and stop it from spreading. Macrophages grow from white blood cells called monocytes, but they work in tissues, not your blood. Eosinophils mainly attach to parasites that are too big to ingest in order to kill them.
Natural Killer Cells
Another part of your innate immunity is this type of white blood cell. They recognize and latch onto abnormal cells like cancer, then damage and kill them. They're key players when you first get infected by a virus.
Basophils and Mast Cells
They're also part of your innate immunity, involved with allergic reactions. Basophils are in your blood; mast cells are in tissues. When these cells find certain antigens (typically, harmless things that your body sees as a threat), they release histamine to bring immune cells to the area. Your body sends more blood there, causing inflammation -- redness, warmth, and swelling -- that also helps keeps the invasion from spreading.
These infection-fighting white blood cells are the reason you get sick from things like chicken pox only once. Lymphocytes called T cells and B cells work together to build your acquired immunity.
Once your B cells get a read on the antigen of a new invader, they make antibodies to either kill it or flag it as "Trouble here!" These Y-shaped molecules fit into antigens like puzzle pieces, making an immune complex. An antibody can also be called immunoglobulin or Ig.
They travel through your blood and lymph systems, waiting to be activated. Usually, another immune cell, like a dendritic cell, will need to break down an antigen so it can be recognized to start the process of making specialized T cells. Killer and helper T cells are part of the search-and-attack team for that antigen. You need suppressor T cells to end the response, and they can sometimes prevent harmful responses from happening.
After forming in your bone marrow, T cells travel to this small organ behind your breastbone to mature into cells that can tell one antigen from another. It's also here that these cells learn not to attack your body's own tissues, and they normally can't leave until they do.
Secondary Lymph Organs
Your spleen, tonsils, adenoids, appendix, and small Peyer patches in your intestine are where mature T cells are stored. These organs can also help sift out germs and dead cells, the way your lymph nodes do. Your immune cells might meet up here to get a closer look at possible threats and figure out the right plan of action.
You may get sick the first time your body comes across a new antigen and is learning how to make antibodies. But afterward, you will have leftover B and T cells called "memory cells" that can recognize that particular germ and respond quickly.
It's a group of more than 30 proteins that work in a cascade, where one triggers the next, which triggers another, and so on. These either kill germs directly or "mark" them or their location so that other cells can destroy them. They may help antibodies do their job. They are also part of cleaning up immune complexes, the antibodies attached to antigens. They work with both acquired and innate immune responses.
Different kinds of cells can make these messengers. Some cytokines trigger and focus the immune response. They might tell white blood cells where to go or how to destroy a particular germ. One type, interferons, can slow or stop a virus from making copies of itself. Cytokines also tell your body to shut it down after a threat is gone.
When It Goes Wrong
An allergic response is your body overreacting to something that would not hurt you, like peanuts. When your system does not react strongly enough to a problem, that's called an immunodeficiency disorder, like AIDS. An autoimmune response happens when your body mistakes your tissues or organs for invaders and attacks healthy cells. That can cause serious illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, type 1 diabetes, and lupus.