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Approach to the Patient With Suspected Immunodeficiency
Immunodeficiency typically manifests as recurrent infections. However, more likely causes of recurrent infections in children are repeated exposures to infection at day care or school (infants and children may normally have up to 10 respiratory infections/yr), and more likely causes in children and adults are inadequate duration of antibiotic treatment, resistant organisms, and other disorders that predispose to infection (eg, congenital heart defects, allergic rhinitis, ureteral or urethral stenosis, immotile cilia syndrome, asthma, cystic fibrosis, severe dermatitis).
Immunodeficiency should be suspected when recurrent infections are the following:
Initially, infections due to immunodeficiency are typically upper and lower respiratory tract infections (eg, sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia) and gastroenteritis, but they may be serious bacterial infections (eg, meningitis, sepsis).
Immunodeficiency should also be suspected in infants or young children with chronic diarrhea and failure to thrive, especially when the diarrhea is caused by unusual viruses (eg, adenovirus) or fungi (eg, Cryptosporidium sp). Other signs include skin lesions (eg, eczema, warts, abscesses, pyoderma, alopecia), oral or esophageal thrush, oral ulcers, and periodontitis.
Less common manifestations include severe viral infection with herpes simplex or varicella zoster virus and CNS problems (eg, chronic encephalitis, delayed development, seizure disorder). Frequent use of antibiotics may mask many of the common symptoms and signs. Immunodeficiency should be considered particularly in patients with infections and an autoimmune disorder (eg, hemolytic anemia, thrombocytopenia).
History and physical examination are helpful but must be supplemented by immune function testing. Prenatal testing is available for many disorders and is indicated if there is a family history of immunodeficiency and the mutation has been identified in family members.
Clinicians should determine whether patients have a history of risk factors for infection or of symptoms and risk factors for secondary immunodeficiency disorders. Family history is very important.
Age when recurrent infections began is important.
Onset before age 6 mo suggests a T-cell defect because maternal antibodies are usually protective for the first 6 to 9 mo.
Onset between the age of 6 and 12 mo may suggest combined B- and T-cell defects or a B-cell defect, which becomes evident when maternal antibodies are disappearing (at about age 6 mo).
Onset much later than 12 mo usually suggests a B-cell defect or secondary immunodeficiency.
In general, the earlier the age at onset in children, the more severe the immunodeficiency. Often, certain other primary immunodeficiencies (eg, common variable immunodeficiency [CVID]) do not manifest until adulthood.
Certain infections suggest certain immunodeficiency disorders ( Some Clues in Patient History to Type of Immunodeficiency); however, no infection is specific to any one disorder, and certain common infections (eg, respiratory viral or bacterial infections) occur in many.
Some Clues in Patient History to Type of Immunodeficiency
Patients with immunodeficiency may or may not appear chronically ill. Macular rashes, vesicles, pyoderma, eczema, petechiae, alopecia, or telangiectasia may be evident.
Cervical lymph nodes and adenoid and tonsillar tissue are typically very small or absent in X-linked agammaglobulinemia, X-linked hyper-IgM syndrome, severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), and other T-cell immunodeficiencies despite a history of recurrent infections. In certain other immunodeficiencies (eg, chronic granulomatous disease), lymph nodes of the head and neck may be enlarged and suppurative.
Tympanic membranes may be scarred or perforated. The nostrils may be crusted, indicating purulent nasal discharge. Chronic cough is common, as are lung crackles, especially in adults with CVID. The liver and spleen are often enlarged in patients with CVID or chronic granulomatous disease. Muscle mass and fat deposits of the buttocks are decreased. In infants, skin around the anus may break down because of chronic diarrhea. Neurologic examination may detect delayed developmental milestones or ataxia.
Other characteristic findings tentatively suggest a clinical diagnosis (see Characteristic Clinical Findings in Some Primary Immunodeficiency Disorders).
Characteristic Clinical Findings in Some Primary Immunodeficiency Disorders
If a specific secondary immunodeficiency disorder is suspected clinically, testing should focus on that disorder (eg, diabetes, HIV infection, cystic fibrosis, primary ciliary dyskinesia).
Tests are needed to confirm a diagnosis of immunodeficiency ( Initial and Additional Laboratory Tests for Immunodeficiency). Initial screening tests should include
Initial and Additional Laboratory Tests for Immunodeficiency
If results are normal, immunodeficiency (especially Ig deficiency) can be excluded. If results are abnormal, further tests in specialized laboratories are needed to identify specific deficiencies. If chronic infections are objectively documented, initial and specific tests may be done simultaneously. If clinicians suspect that immunodeficiency may be still developing, tests may need to be repeated, with monitoring over time, before a definitive diagnosis is made.
CBC can detect abnormalities in one or more cell types (eg, WBCs, platelets) characteristic of specific disorders, as in the following:
Neutropenia (absolute neutrophil count < 1200 cells/μL) may be congenital or cyclic or may occur in aplastic anemia.
Lymphopenia (lymphocytes < 2000/μL at birth, < 4500/μL at age 9 mo, or < 1000/μL in older children or adults) suggests a T-cell disorder because 70% of circulating lymphocytes are T cells.
Leukocytosis that persists between infections may occur in leukocyte adhesion deficiency.
Thrombocytopenia in male infants suggests Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome.
Anemia may suggest anemia of chronic disease or autoimmune hemolytic anemia, which may occur in CVID and other immunodeficiencies.
However, many abnormalities are transient manifestations of infection, drug use, or other factors; thus, abnormalities should be confirmed and followed.
Peripheral blood smear should be examined for Howell-Jolly bodies and other unusual RBC forms, which suggest primary asplenia or impaired splenic function. Granulocytes may have morphologic abnormalities (eg, giant granules in Chédiak-Higashi syndrome).
Quantitative serum Ig levels are measured. Low serum levels of IgG, IgM, or IgA suggest antibody deficiency, but results must be compared with those of age-matched controls. An IgG level < 200 mg/dL usually indicates significant antibody deficiency, although such levels may occur in protein-losing enteropathies or nephrotic syndrome.
IgM antibodies can be assessed by measuring isohemagglutinin titers (anti-A, anti-B). All patients except infants < 6 mo and people with blood type AB have natural antibodies at a titer of ≥ 1:8 (anti-A) or ≥ 1:4 (anti-B). Antibodies to blood groups A and B and to some bacterial polysaccharides are selectively deficient in certain disorders (eg, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, complete IgG2 deficiency).
IgG antibody titers can be assessed in immunized patients by measuring antibody titers before and after administration of vaccine antigens ( Haemophilus influenzae type B, tetanus, diphtheria, conjugated or nonconjugated pneumococcal, and meningococcal antigens); a less-than-twofold increase in titer at 2 to 3 wk suggests antibody deficiency regardless of Ig levels. Natural antibodies (eg, antistreptolysin O, heterophil antibodies) may also be measured.
With skin testing, most immunocompetent adults, infants, and children react to 0.1 mL of Candida albicans extract (1:100 for infants and 1:1000 for older children and adults) injected intradermally. Positive reactivity, defined as erythema and induration > 5 mm at 24, 48, and 72 h, excludes a T-cell disorder. Lack of response does not confirm immunodeficiency in patients with no previous exposure to Candida.
Chest x-ray may be useful in some infants; an absent thymic shadow suggests a T-cell disorder, especially if the x-ray is obtained before onset of infection or other stresses that may shrink the thymus. Lateral pharyngeal x-ray may show absence of adenoidal tissue.
If clinical findings or initial tests suggest a specific disorder of immune cell or complement function, other tests are indicated.
If patients have recurrent infections and lymphopenia, lymphocyte phenotyping using flow cytometry and monoclonal antibodies to T, B, and natural killer (NK) cells is indicated to check for lymphocyte deficiency.
If cellular immunity deficiency is suspected, the T-cell receptor excision circle (TREC) test can be done to identify infants with low T-cell counts. If tests show that T cells are low in number or absent, in vitro mitogen stimulation studies are done to assess T-cell function. If MHC antigen deficiency is suspected, serologic (not molecular) HLA typing is indicated. Some experts recommend screening all neonates with a TREC test; testing is done routinely in some US states.
If humoral immunity deficiency is suspected, patients may be tested for specific mutations—for example, in the genes that encode for Bruton tyrosine kinase (BTK), CD40 and CD40 ligand, and nuclear factor-kappa-B essential modulator (NEMO). A sweat test is typically done during the evaluation to rule out cystic fibrosis.
If combined cellular and humoral immunity is impaired and SCID is suspected, patients can be tested for certain typical mutations (eg, in the IL-2 receptor γ [ IL-2RG , or IL-2Rγ ] gene).
If phagocytic cell defects are suspected, CD15 and CD18 are measured by flow cytometry and neutrophil chemotaxis is tested. A flow cytometric oxidative (respiratory) burst assay (measured by dihydrorhodamine 123 [DHR] or nitroblue tetrazolium [NBT]) can detect whether O 2 radicals are produced during phagocytosis; no production is characteristic of chronic granulomatous disease.
If the type or pattern of infections suggests complement deficiency, the serum dilution required to lyse 50% of antibody-coated RBCs is measured. This test (called CH50) detects complement component deficiencies in the classical complement pathway but does not indicate which component is abnormal. A similar test (AH50) can be done to detect complement deficiencies in the alternative pathway.
If examination or screening tests detect abnormalities suggesting lymphocyte or phagocytic cell defects, other tests can more precisely characterize specific disorders ( Specific and Advanced Laboratory Tests for Immunodeficiency*).
Specific and Advanced Laboratory Tests for Immunodeficiency*
An increasing number of primary immunodeficiency disorders can be diagnosed prenatally using chorionic villus sampling, cultured amniotic cells, or fetal blood sampling, but these tests are used only when a mutation in family members has already been identified (see Procedures : Chorionic Villus Sampling). X-linked agammaglobulinemia, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, X-linked lymphoproliferative syndrome, all forms of SCID (using the TREC test), and all forms of chronic granulomatous disease can be detected. Sex determination by ultrasonography can be used to exclude X-linked disorders.
Prognosis depends on the primary immunodeficiency disorder. Most patients with an Ig or a complement deficiency have a good prognosis with a near-normal life expectancy if they are diagnosed early, are treated appropriately, and have no coexisting chronic disorders (eg, pulmonary disorders such as bronchiectasis). Other immunodeficient patients (eg, those with a phagocytic cell defect or combined immunodeficiencies, such as Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome or ataxia-telangiectasia) have a guarded prognosis; most require intensive and frequent treatment. Some immunodeficient patients (eg, those with SCID) die during infancy unless immunity is provided through transplantation. All forms of SCID could be diagnosed at birth if a WBC count and manual differential of cord or peripheral blood were routinely done in neonates. Suspicion for SCID, a true pediatric emergency, must be high because prompt diagnosis is essential for survival. If SCID is diagnosed before patients reach age 3 mo, transplantation of bone marrow or stem cells from a matched or half-matched (haploidentical) relative is lifesaving in 95%.
Treatment generally involves preventing infection, managing acute infection, and replacing missing immune components when possible.
Infection can be prevented by advising patients to avoid environmental exposures and not giving them live-virus vaccines (varicella, rotavirus, measles, mumps, rubella).
Patients at risk of serious infections (eg, those with SCID, chronic granulomatous disease, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, or asplenia) or of specific infections (eg, with Pneumocystis jirovecii in patients with T-cell disorders) can be given prophylactic antibiotics (eg, 5 mg/kg trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole po bid).
To prevent graft-vs-host disease after transfusions, clinicians should use blood products from cytomegalovirus-negative donors; the products should be filtered to remove WBCs and irradiated (15 to 30 Gy).
After appropriate cultures are obtained, antibiotics that target likely causes should be given promptly. Sometimes surgery (eg, to drain abscesses) is needed. Usually, self-limited viral infections cause severe persistent disease in immunocompromised patients. Antivirals (eg, amantadine, rimantadine, oseltamivir, or zanamivir for influenza; acyclovir for herpes simplex and varicella-zoster infections; ribavirin for respiratory syncytial virus or parainfluenza 3 infections) may be lifesaving.
Such replacement helps prevent infection. Therapies used in more than one primary immunodeficiency disorder include the following:
IV immune globulin (IVIG) is effective replacement therapy in most forms of antibody deficiency. The usual dose is 400 mg/kg once/mo; treatment is begun at a low infusion rate. Some patients need higher or more frequent doses. IVIG 800 mg/kg once/mo helps some antibody-deficient patients who do not respond well to conventional doses, particularly those with a chronic lung disorder. High-dose IVIG aims to keep IgG trough levels in the normal range (> 600 mg/dL). IVIG may also be given by slow sc infusions at weekly intervals with a starting dose of 100 mg/kg.
Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation using bone marrow, cord blood, or adult peripheral blood stem cells is effective for lethal T-cell and other immunodeficiencies. Pretransplantation chemotherapy is unnecessary in patients without T cells (eg, those with SCID). However, patients with intact T-cell function or partial T-cell deficiencies (eg, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, combined immunodeficiency with inadequate but not absent T-cell function) require pretransplantation chemotherapy to ensure graft acceptance. When a matched sibling donor is unavailable, haploidentical bone marrow from a parent can be used. In such cases, mature T cells that cause graft-vs-host disease must be rigorously depleted from parental marrow before it is given. Umbilical cord blood from an HLA-matched sibling can also be used as a source of stem cells. In some cases, bone marrow or umbilical cord blood from a matched unrelated donor can be used, but after transplantation, immunosuppressants are required to prevent graft-vs-host disease, and their use delays restoration of immunity.
Retroviral vector gene therapy has been successful in a few patients with X-linked and ADA-deficient SCID, but this treatment is not widely used because some patients with X-linked SCID developed leukemia.
Consider a primary immunodeficiency if infections are unusually frequent or severe, particularly if they occur in family members, or if patients have thrush, oral ulcers, periodontitis, or certain skin lesions.
Do a complete physical examination, including the skin, all mucous membranes, lymph nodes, spleen, and rectum.
Begin testing with CBC (with manual differential), quantitative Ig levels, antibody titers, and skin testing for delayed hypersensitivity.
Select additional tests based on what type of immune defect is suspected (humoral, cellular, phagocytic cell, or complement).
Test the fetus (eg, using fetal blood, chorionic villus sampling, or cultured amniotic cells) if family members are known to have an immunodeficiency disorder.
Teach patients how to avoid infections, give indicated live-virus vaccines, and prescribe prophylactic antibiotics for patients with certain disorders.
Consider IVIG for antibody deficiencies and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for severe immunodeficiencies, particularly T-cell immunodeficiencies.
Drug NameSelect Brand Names
trimethoprimNo US brand name
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