Preparing for Routine Illnesses When You’re Immunocompromised

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by Allison Ross |

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Here come the signs: A dry tickle in the throat. A heavy chest. Excessive Kleenex use. Extreme fatigue.

By the time, I wake up with a fever the next day, there’s no longer any question — I am definitely sick.

My mind starts racing about what it could be. Is it a routine illness like the common cold? Something worse? Bronchitis and pneumonia both start with that throat tickle. 

Though symptoms might vary, most of us who inhabit the world of chronic illness and vasculitis know what it’s like to get sick with one of the more common ailments. The difference is that our bodies can’t fight off germs or a virus as easily as someone who’s not immunocompromised. 

Not so routine

Like many vasculitis patients, I take a medication called Imuran (azathioprine) each day, which lowers the effectiveness of my immune system. The point of the medicine is to control inflammation, which is when the body goes into overdrive and attacks itself. But the drawback of the medicine is that my system isn’t able to combat the more routine germs it encounters. 

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The Ups and Downs of December

This means that even a mild cold can develop into an infection before I realize it’s happening. Without the body’s natural pathogen-fighting abilities, a routine illness that seems benign can pose a serious threat. 

When to call the doctor 

My vasculitis diagnosis was 17 years ago, so I’ve had a lot of time to live with depressed immunity. I’ve come to learn what is “normal,” what I’ll be able to fight off in a few days or weeks, and what is a red flag signaling something worse. 

For example, I know a cough is my body doing its job, expelling foreign material or infected gunk from my lungs so that I can breathe more clearly. But when that cough continues for more than a week without subsiding, or includes a trace of blood, that’s when I need to call my rheumatologist

I’m fortunate to have good medical care. Having a specialist I can trust is like having an immune system support system. A specialist can guide a patient with decision-making, such as what medications to take, which treatment options are available, and how to access resources without hurting the wallet. 

How to know the difference

I rarely go a full calendar year without coming down with something, usually a cold that becomes a bronchial infection requiring antibiotics.

Therefore, knowing my body and its various signals is important. Regardless of whether an initial tickle in my throat develops into anything worse, it helps to be present in the moment and recognize what’s happening. Taking into account how I feel and how it’s affecting my daily life help me put what’s really going on into perspective. I can’t just rush through my day and say, “It’s a busy time of year. I’ll deal with it later.” That attitude could cause severe issues down the line.

One of the most unsettling things about having a chronic illness is that we don’t always know what causes us to get sick. One hunch among members of the healthcare community is that a shock to the system can trigger an otherwise inactive illness.

Other tips

Following are some things I remember to do, knowing that at any time something I catch could turn into something worse.

  • Stock seasonal cold/flu remedies year-round. The last thing I want to do when I feel under the weather is go to the store to pick up items, especially during the winter. 
  • Remember the basics. Sleep, nutritious foods, and exercise give me a head start on combating any sickness before it can cause me harm.
  • Don’t feel bad asking for help. I know that a best friend or neighbor will always be happy to bring me something to help me feel better.

It’s an unusual life we chronic illness patients live, filled with heightened stress and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility for how we feel. But if we put measures in place to take care of ourselves, we can benefit from improved health over the long run and a greater connection to our physical selves. 


Note: ANCA Vasculitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ANCA Vasculitis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ANCA vasculitis.


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