Compromised Immunity: Primary And Secondary Causes

Written by Dr. Sintayehu Abebe on Fri, 01 December 2023


Our immune system can become incapacitated and not be able to fight infections. Understand why.

In such situations, we say that our immune system is compromised. There are multiple causes as to why this can happen.

To help you understand this better, we have an analogy for you. Think about fighting infections like a police chase - different components of the immune system chasing the bad guys (invading pathogens). The ultimate goal is to eliminate the threat. Just like a police force can need backup, the immune cells attacking the pathogens need assistance from multiple other cells. Hence, it's a combined effort.

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1. Primary causes: Maybe you were born this way

Primary causes are the genetic factors - meaning we're born with them. These could be inherited from your parents. They can also occur due to mutations in your genes. Most of the time, these are identified when you're young. However, sometimes they manifest during adulthood as well.

2. Adaptive immunity:

We're sure you've heard the term antibodies at least once in your life. These are substances that fight against the invading antigens. B cells are the ones that produce antibodies, and T cells are the ones that help the B cells along the way. Some T cells are also involved in the actual microbe killing. Defects in the genes controlling these cells can hamper their number and function in the body.

3. Innate immunity:

We bet you learned about the White Blood Cells in your biology class. These are the ones chasing after the pathogens, squeezing through tight spaces to exterminate. Some mutations can affect the ability of these cells to destroy the pathogens, thus leading to compromised immunity.

For people suffering from this kind of compromised immunity, many vaccines must be avoided. They need to live in safe environments where possibly most people are vaccinated to reduce the risk of infections.

4. Secondary causes: Those acquired along the way

These are the ones that are the direct result of some external factors or illnesses. We are not born with them. They're acquired through the lifetime.

Secondary causes include:

  • Malnutrition: Malnutrition is the condition where your diet cannot meet your nutrient requirements. This is commonly seen in developing countries. Malnourished people are at a higher risk of contracting respiratory infections and diarrhoea.
  • Drug regimens: These are drugs that can suppress immune responses. This can include treatment for rheumatoid arthritis/before organ transplantation, etc.
  • Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals can be toxic to the immune system. This can include certain food additives, pesticides, etc.
  • Infections: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which results from Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infections, is a very prominent cause of compromised immunity. This is a viral infection and hunts down the T cells.
  • Chronic Diseases: Chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are known to compromise immunity. These were the primary and secondary causes of the compromised immune system. People with a compromised immunity must exercise extra care and precautions to keep themselves safe and risk-free.

Dr. Sintayehu Abebe

Dr Sintayehu Abebe is a Consultant Internist and Interventional Cardiologist at the Addis Ababa University. The young and energetic Dr Abebe who is always keen on learning new things is also President of the Ethiopian Society of Cardiac Professionals (ESCP).

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  1. Immunodeficiency Available from: Immunology Accessed on 4 May 2021.
  2. Franรงa TG, et al. Impact of malnutrition on immunity and infection. J Venom Anim Toxins incl Trop Dis. 2009;15(3):374-90.
  3. Torrens F, et al. AIDS destroys immune defenses: Hypothesis. New Front Chem. 2014;23(1):11-20.
  4. National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on Immunotoxicology. Biologic Markers in Immunotoxicology. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1992. 5, The Capacity of Toxic Agents to Compromise the Immune System (Biologic Markers of Immunosuppression) Available from: NIH

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Dec, 01 2023

Written By

Dr. Sintayehu Abebe