My Immune System is Broken.
March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, so here I am, making you aware.
I've talked before about what autoimmune diseases are, but there's an important facet of them that I've found myself explaining a lot this flu season: many patients with autoimmune diseases are what we call "immunosuppressed" or "immunocompromised."
Basically, what that means is that in order to fight my Crohn's Disease inflammation and keep me happy and functional, I'm on an immunosuppressant medicine that does exactly what the word sounds like – it suppresses my immune system. In autoimmune diseases, the body attacks its own cells. One way to calm that down is to suppress the system doing the fighting. My immune system is too aggressive, so we've had to put it in a time out. Crohn's is enough of a terror on my insides that doctors decided I'm better off having a compromised immune system than dealing with the inflammation I was living with before. It's a hell of a trade off.
And it means that I get sick, a lot. Not just sick from my Crohn's symptoms when they decide to rear up, but sick with the flu and colds and bronchitis and every other fun thing that got you out of school in the fourth grade. It puts me in the same class as the elderly and babies when it comes to risk of catching infection. It means washing my hands a lot, and wearing a mask when I go to hospitals or doctor's offices where the germs are more prevalent. It means avoiding people who have the flu (no offense, sick friends and coworkers). When people ask, I usually save them the long story and just say that my immune system is broken.
That's why I urge all the folks in my life to get their flu shots, and it's why if you see a 20-something girl on an airplane wearing a mask, you should save the weird looks. If you know someone who is immunocompromised, don't be surprised if they're out sick every other month (winter is especially tough!). I'm incredibly grateful that the cocktail of meds I'm currently on is working and allowing me a better quality of life, but in order to get that, I'm putting myself at a greater risk of other ailments.
So there's your annual dose of autoimmune disease awareness. These illnesses are no walk in the park, but the more understanding and empathy we can give to patients, the better the world will be next time this month comes around.