Primary immunodeficiency disorders — also called primary immune disorders or primary immunodeficiency — weaken the immune system, allowing infections and other health problems to occur more easily.

Many people with primary immunodeficiency are born missing some of the body's immune defenses, which leaves them more susceptible to germs that can cause infections.

Some forms of primary immunodeficiency are so mild they may go unnoticed for years. Other types are severe enough that they're discovered almost as soon as an affected baby is born.

Treatments can boost the immune system for many types of primary immunodeficiency disorders. Most people with the condition lead relatively normal, productive lives.

One of the most common signs of primary immunodeficiency is an increased susceptibility to infections. You may have infections that are more frequent, longer lasting or harder to treat than are the infections of someone with a normal immune system. You may also get infections that a person with a healthy immune system likely wouldn't get (opportunistic infections).

Signs and symptoms differ depending on the type of primary immunodeficiency disorder, and they vary from person to person.

Signs and symptoms of primary immunodeficiency can include:

  • Frequent and recurrent pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, meningitis or skin infections
  • Inflammation and infection of internal organs
  • Blood disorders, such as low platelet counts or anemia
  • Digestive problems, such as cramping, loss of appetite, nausea and diarrhea
  • Delayed growth and development
  • Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or type 1 diabetes

When to see a doctor

If your child or you have frequent, recurrent or severe infections or infections that don't respond to treatments, talk to your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment of primary immune deficiencies may prevent infections that can cause long-term problems.

Many primary immunodeficiency disorders are inherited — passed down from one or both parents. Problems in the DNA — the genetic code that acts as a blueprint for producing the cells that make up the human body — cause many of the immune system defects in primary immunodeficiency.

There are numerous types of primary immunodeficiency disorders. In fact, research has led to a dramatic increase in the number of recognized primary immunodeficiency disorders in recent years, so they're not as rare as once thought. They can be broadly classified into six groups based on the part of the immune system that's affected:

  • B cell (antibody) deficiencies
  • T cell deficiencies
  • Combination B and T cell deficiencies
  • Defective phagocytes
  • Complement deficiencies
  • Unknown (idiopathic)

The only known risk factor is having a family history of a primary immune deficiency disorder, which increases your risk of having the condition.

Complications caused by a primary immunodeficiency disorder vary, depending on what type you have. They can include:

  • Recurrent infections
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Damage to heart, lungs, nervous system or digestive tract
  • Slowed growth
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Death from serious infection

You'll likely start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. You may then be referred to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the immune system (immunologist).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

  • Write down symptoms, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment.
  • Bring copies of records from hospitalizations and medical test results, including X-rays, blood test results and culture findings.
  • Ask family members about the family medical history, including whether anyone was diagnosed with primary immunodeficiency, or if any babies or children died of unknown causes.
  • Make a list of medications, vitamins and supplements you or your child takes. If possible, list all of the antibiotic prescriptions and the dosages you or your child has taken for the past several months.
  • Ask a family member or friend to come with you, if possible. Someone who accompanies you may remember something you missed or forgot.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of the time with the doctor. For primary immunodeficiency, basic questions include:

  • What's the most likely cause of these symptoms?
  • Are there other possible causes?
  • What tests are needed? Do these tests require special preparation?
  • What's the prognosis?
  • What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
  • I have other health problems, how do I manage them together.
  • What side effects can be expected from treatment?
  • Are there alternatives to the primary approach you're suggesting?
  • Are there activity restrictions?
  • Are there brochures or other printed material I can have? What websites do you recommend?

Don't hesitate to ask any other questions, as well.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor or your child's doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:

  • When did the symptoms begin?
  • Have symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How many infections have you or your child had during the past year?
  • How long do these infections usually last?
  • Do antibiotics usually clear up the infection?
  • How many times has your child taken antibiotics during the last year?
  • Does anyone in the family have primary immunodeficiency?

To help decide whether recurrent infections could be due to primary immunodeficiency, your doctor will ask about your history of illnesses and whether any close relatives have an inherited immune system disorder.

Your doctor also will perform a physical examination. Tests used to diagnose an immune disorder include:

  • Blood tests. Blood tests can determine if you have normal levels of infection-fighting proteins (immunoglobulin) in your blood and measure the levels of blood cells and immune system cells. Abnormal numbers of certain cells can indicate an immune system defect.

    Blood tests also can determine if your immune system is responding properly and producing antibodies — proteins that identify and kill foreign invaders such as bacteria or viruses.

  • Prenatal testing. Parents who've had a child with a primary immunodeficiency disorder may want to be tested for certain immunodeficiency disorders during future pregnancies. Samples of the amniotic fluid, blood or cells from the tissue that will become the placenta (chorion) are tested for abnormalities.

  • In some cases, DNA testing is done to test for a genetic defect. Test results make it possible to prepare for treatment soon after birth, if necessary.

Treatments for primary immunodeficiency involve preventing and treating infections, boosting the immune system, and treating the underlying cause of the immune problem. In some cases, primary immune disorders are linked to a serious illness, such as an autoimmune disorder or cancer, which also needs to be treated.

Managing infections

  • Treating infections. Infections require rapid and aggressive treatment with antibiotics. Infections that don't respond may require hospitalization and intravenous (IV) antibiotics.
  • Preventing infections. Some people need long-term antibiotics to prevent respiratory infections and associated permanent damage to the lungs and ears. Children with primary immunodeficiency may not be able to have vaccines containing live viruses, such as oral polio and measles-mumps-rubella.
  • Treating symptoms. Medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) for pain and fever, decongestants for sinus congestion, and expectorants to thin mucus in the airways may help relieve symptoms caused by infections.

    Postural drainage — using gravity and light blows to the chest to clear the lungs — may help relieve the discomfort of repeated (chronic) respiratory infections.

Treatment to boost the immune system

  • Immunoglobulin therapy. Immunoglobulin consists of antibody proteins needed for the immune system to fight infections. It can either be injected into a vein through an IV line or inserted underneath the skin (subcutaneous infusion). IV treatment is needed every few weeks, and subcutaneous infusion is needed once or twice a week.
  • Gamma interferon therapy. Interferons are naturally occurring substances that fight viruses and stimulate immune system cells. Gamma interferon is a manufactured (synthetic) substance given as an injection in the thigh or arm three times a week. It's used to treat chronic granulomatous disease, one form of primary immunodeficiency.
  • Growth factors. When immune deficiency is caused by a lack of certain white blood cells, growth factor therapy can help increase the levels of immune-strengthening white blood cells.

Stem cell transplantation

Stem cell transplantation offers a permanent cure for several forms of life-threatening immunodeficiency. Normal stem cells are transferred to the person with immunodeficiency, giving him or her a normally functioning immune system. Stem cells can be harvested through bone marrow, or they can be obtained from the placenta at birth (cord blood banking).

The stem cell donor — usually a parent or other close relative — must have body tissues that are a close biological match to those of the person with primary immunodeficiency. Even with a good match, however, stem cell transplants don't always work.

The treatment often requires that functioning immune cells be destroyed using chemotherapy or radiation before the transplants, leaving the transplant recipient temporarily even more vulnerable to infection.

Most people with primary immunodeficiency can go to school and work like everyone else. Still, you may feel as if no one understands what it's like to live with the constant threat of infections. Talking to someone who faces similar challenges may help.

Ask your doctor if there are support groups in the area for people with primary immunodeficiency or for parents of children with the disease. The Immune Deficiency Foundation has a peer support program, as well as information on living with primary immunodeficiency.

Because primary immune disorders are caused by genetic defects, there's no way to prevent them. But when you or your child has a weakened immune system, you can take steps to prevent infections:

  • Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands with mild soap after using the toilet and before eating.
  • Take care of your teeth. Brush your teeth at least twice a day.
  • Eat right. A healthy, balanced diet can help prevent infections.
  • Be physically active. Staying fit is important to your overall health. Ask your doctor what activities are appropriate for you.
  • Get enough sleep. Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time daily and get the same number of hours of sleep every night.
  • Manage stress. Some studies suggest that stress can hamper your immune system. Keep stress in check with massage, meditation, yoga, biofeedback or hobbies. Find what works for you.
  • Avoid exposure. Stay away from people with colds or other infections and avoid crowds.
  • Ask your doctor about vaccinations. Find out which ones you should have.
Jan. 20, 2015