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Living with immunosuppression

Having a weakened immune system does not necessarily cause any symptoms, but it does increase your risk of infection from different kinds of bugs, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. So it's important to recognise when you are becoming unwell and get medical help early.

If you have had an organ transplant and need to take immunity-suppressing medicines for the rest of your life, you will also have a much higher risk of skin cancer and some other cancers. You should have regular skin checks and if you are a woman you should have smear tests every year.

When should I see a doctor?

If you are taking medicines that suppress your immunity you should see a doctor as soon as possible if you start to feel unwell with a fever, sore throat, or cough, are passing urine more often, or have diarrhoea or vomiting.

If you are having chemotherapy and have a fever, phone the Oncology Department, any time of night or day, using the phone number on the green card they have given you. They can advise you on what you should do.

If you have a fever or are feeling unwell you will need a blood test to check the level of your white blood cells. These are the cells that fight infection. You may also need some other tests, such as X-rays or a urine test, depending on what symptoms you have.

It’s important to get checked as soon as you start to feel unwell, so that you can be treated early with antibiotics if you need them. With a weak immune system you can get very unwell very quickly, so don’t delay seeing your doctor.

How can I avoid getting sick?

You don't need to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people altogether, but you do need to avoid anyone who is unwell with a sore throat or cough, diarrhoea and vomiting, chickenpox, or shingles.

You should also be very thorough in washing your hands to avoid picking up germs.

There is no special diet that you need to follow, but avoid foods that are more likely to cause infection. The Ministry of Primary Industries has produced a guide to what is safe to eat and what you should avoid (link downloads a PDF).

You can read more about how to avoid infection if you have cancer.

Immunisations

Some vaccines are safe for you, and some are not. The flu vaccine is safe and can help to protect you from getting the flu while your immune system is weak. However, some vaccinations can make you unwell and you should discuss with your doctor if they are safe before having them. They are the live vaccines: measles, mumps and rubella, oral polio, yellow fever, BCG (for tuberculosis), the chickenpox and shingles vaccines.

Children in your family should continue to get their usual immunisations. They will not put you at risk. It actually helps to protect you and your family from infections if others get their usual immunisations.

Will my immune system recover?

Whether your immune system will recover or not depends on how long you need to take the medicines that are weakening your immune system. If for example you are taking chemotherapy to treat a cancer then your immune system will gradually recover in the weeks after you finish chemotherapy. If, however, you need to take an immunity-suppressing medicine for life you will always have to be aware of the increased risk of infection.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created August 2017.

Sources

See also:

Skin cancer checks for immune-suppressed people

Page reference: 392841

Review key: HIIMS-392691