Immune Suppression - Symptoms

Authored by Dr Mary Harding, 05 Jul 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Adrian Bonsall, 05 Jul 2017

Much of the time, if you have immune suppression, you do not know you have it. However, you may be prone to getting infections more frequently. Also when you do get infections, they may be more severe and you may be more likely to develop severe complications. You may also get unusual or uncommon infections. For example, in general, healthy adults do not usually get thrush in the mouth, unless there is a good reason for it, such as using a steroid inhaler. For people with AIDS, however, thrush is common and may be very widespread or severe.

The medicines which can suppress your immune system may give you other side-effects. These vary and will be listed in the information which comes with your individual medicine.

Infections can develop and spread particularly quickly in people whose immune systems are suppressed. A sore throat, for example, is more likely to develop into a chest infection. You are more likely to get spread of any one individual infection to your whole body (sepsis), which can make you dangerously ill.

People who have immunosuppression also seem to be at higher risk of certain types of skin cancer. This includes squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), melanoma and Kaposi's sarcoma. It is not entirely known for sure why this is. It may be because the immune system helps to destroy skin cells which have been damaged by the sun. These cells, if not removed by the immune system may go on to multiply and cause cancer. It may also be that viruses (such as human papillomavirus - HPV, or herpes viruses) involved in some cancers are more likely to be present if the immune system is suppressed. Some immune-suppressing medicines may directly affect skin cells in a way which makes them more likely to develop skin cancers.

If you have immune suppression, the when-to-see-your-doctor rules change. With most minor infections, healthy people are encouraged to take a wait-and-see approach, treating the symptoms and only visiting the doctor if they feel very unwell or the infection is not settling on its own. If you have immune suppression, however, even a mild infection could become serious very quickly. So it is best to see a doctor as soon as possible rather than waiting to see how things go. Infections caught early can be treated quickly, preventing them from spreading and making you unwell. You are more likely to be given an antibiotic for a mild infection compared with someone who is not immunosuppressed, and it may well be in extreme cases that this might save your life.

So see a doctor if you think you might have an infection, such as a sore throat, a cough, symptoms of a urine infection, food poisoning, etc.

Seek urgent medical attention if:

  • You have a high temperature (fever) over 38°C.
  • You have chills or shakes (rigors).
  • You feel generally unwell with dizziness or drowsiness or confusion.
  • You have a rash.
  • The light hurts your eyes.
  • You have fits (seizures).

If you have a child who is immunosuppressed, all the above applies, but also seek medical attention urgently if your child is breathing rapidly, or not eating or drinking as normal.

Also keep an eye on your skin. If you develop any scaly areas which don't clear up quickly with a good moisturising cream, or if you have a new mole or one which has changed then see your doctor. Hopefully it won't be any kind of skin cancer, but if it is, the earlier it is treated, the better the outcome will be.

Further reading and references

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