The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that attacks the immune system and is the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), is responsible for a sharp increase in the number of people with secondary immune deficiencies. HIV destroys T cells, which are crucial to the normal functioning of the human immune system. This can lead to overwhelming infections. People can contract the virus through contact with blood, semen * , vaginal * secretions, and breast milk.
Immune deficiencies may be characterized by frequent, recurrent, or prolonged infections. In some cases, there may be an overwhelming or unusual infection. In others, organisms that typically do not cause problems in a person with a healthy immune system may produce an opportunistic infection * in a person with an immune deficiency. These infections are seen in people infected with HIV and often mark the onset of AIDS.
Other immune deficiencies are characterized by chronic opportunistic infections. Depending on the condition, patients may experience recurrent lung and sinus infections, weakness, tiredness, a lingering cough, diarrhea (dye-uh-REE-uh), skin rashes, and hair loss. Many patients simply look sick. Signs of immune deficiencies also include poor response to treatments, incomplete or slow recovery from illness, fungal or yeast infections that keep coming back, and certain specific infections, such as pneumonia caused by Pneumocystis carinii (nu-mo-SIS-tis kah-RIH-nee-eye).
Although symptoms of opportunistic infections may suggest an immune deficiency, laboratory tests are needed to diagnose the specific deficiency. These include blood tests to measure levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets * and to measure the presence of specific types of cells, such as B cells and T cells. Other blood tests can measure the levels or function of antibodies (such as IgA, IgG, and IgM) and complement proteins. Skin tests may be done to check the responses of T cells. Other, more specific tests of the immune system's competency depend on the type of deficiency suspected.
* sickle-cell disease is a hereditary condition in which the red blood cells, which are usually round, take on an abnormal crescent shape and have a decreased ability to carry oxygen throughout the body.
* corticosteroids (kor-tih-ko-STIR-oyds) are chemical substances made by the adrenal glands that have several functions in the body, including maintaining blood pressure during stress and controlling inflammation. They can also be given to people as medication to treat certain illnesses.
* semen (SEE-men) is the sperm-containing whitish fluid produced by the male reproductive tract.
* vaginal (VAH-jih-nul) refers to the vagina, the canal in a woman that leads from the uterus to the outside of the body.
* opportunistic infections are infections caused by infectious agents that usually do not produce disease in people with healthy immune systems but can cause widespread and severe illness in patients with weak or faulty immune systems.
* platelets (PLATE-lets) are tiny disk-shaped particles within the blood that play an important role in clotting.
The primary goal of treating immune deficiencies is to prevent infections. Although it is a good idea for some people who have immune deficiencies to avoid contact with people who have infections, this is not always practical. Many patients take daily medication to prevent certain infections, and patients with antibody deficiencies may receive regular doses of the immunoglobulins they lack. People who have HIV or AIDS take combinations of drugs to keep the virus from making more copies of itself and destroying more T cells. Bone marrow * transplantation, to replace the absent or poorly functioning immune system cells of the affected person, is necessary for some patients with severe immune deficiencies, such as SCID. Prompt recognition and treatment of infections, including opportunistic infections, is essential.
* bone marrow is the soft tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.
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The British journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment reports that health outcomes include:
- Fewer stress-related visits to the doctor
- Improved immune system functioning
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved lung function
- Improved liver function
- Fewer days in hospital
- Improved mood/affect
- Feeling of greater psychological well-being
- Reduced depressive symptoms before examinations
- Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms