After about five years with endometriosis my immune system feels pretty weak. Historically put this down to my body having to constantly fight the effects of chronic pain and fatigue, but as time has gone on, and each year I break my own record for the number of colds caught, I’ve started to wonder if there was more to my colds than plain bad luck.
If you practice good hygiene, have a good diet, exercise and avoid activities associated with higher cold risks (e.g. smoking) why does it feel like we’ve gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to my immune system and endometriosis?
Does endometriosis lower your immune system?
In my experience it undoubtedly does. Everyone I speak to with endometriosis says the same thing. Our colds seem worse than before we had endometriosis, and come more often and stay with us longer.
How do I know for sure? I have an extensive pain and illness diary, I’ve written down all my bouts of illness (and all my sick days) for around eight years now, including every sniff, sniffle and ache. I’m getting colds more regularly, and I get at least one more each year than the previous year.
I’ve already written about how frustrating becoming ill when you’re already ill can be, and I’ve even looked at all the ways you can prevent more seasonal illness. I always get over each cold, but the memory of it stays with me for a long time, I dread getting a cold more than anything else. I’m becoming obsessive when it comes to staying well, and with good reason – once I catch one cold, I’m run down even more, and I’m likely to catch another one in a couple of months or around two to three weeks in the winter season.
Why does endometriosis affect our immune system?
Our immune systems are obviously still working or we’d be very seriously ill, but living with endometriosis has definitely lowered my immune system. Prior to endometriosis I could work through a cold, now the common cold gives me a fever, a temperature and completely incapacitates me for up to a week.
So while already feeling pretty run down my body is more susceptible to illness, and I’m weighed down with all the additional misery and regret that comes with having another ache, pain and stress added onto my already tired body.
What’s also overlooked is that many of us are on hormonal treatments for endometriosis, some of us many even be on treatments to entirely stop our periods, and this mimics preganancy. Guess what? Pregnant women are more susceptible to bouts of illness (because their immune system changes to help look after the baby) and annoyingly, we seem to be proxy to this effect too. When you start to realise that endometriosis puts us in two risk groups for getting the common cold and increased risk of viruses (long-term illness and lower immunity), it’s no wonder that we all seem to get ill at the drop of a hat.
How can we combat our low immune systems?
There’s no easy answer to this. Frustratingly the common cold (alongside chronic fatigue) is the aspect of endometriosis that I struggle with the most. Usually we’re doing everything that we can to combat the common cold, we’re also trying to manage endometriosis too, and it’s hard.
I guarantee you’re doing most of this already, and I’m sorry:
- Avoid public transport (if you’re green like me, I do this by cycling) and if you must use it don’t touch anything (especially pockets on the back of seats)
- Stay away from anyone who is ill (and remind everyone you know that you have lowered immunity)
- Wash your hands regularly (alcohol gel them too)
- Avoid touching anything in public (doors, handrails, lift buttons)
- Have a good, well-balanced diet
- Exercise regularly
- Don’t share items (like pens, computers) clean your hands after doing so
- Get as much rest as you can, try not to work when sick (avoid touching the printer at work too)
- Avoid smoking
- Get plenty of good-quality sleep
GPs don’t understand endometriosis and its effects
Everyone with endometriosis knows about immunity problems already, but start to talk about it to a doctor or other health professional and most think that I am a hypercondriac. As endometriosis patients we’re still not offered routine flu vaccinations and this is something you have to argue for individually. I think in time this will change though. There isn’t much about endometriosis that is understood fully by the wider medical world. We’re still not sure of what causes it, so we can’t be completely sure what other, long term effects it has.
There’s not a lot of peer-reviewed science when it comes to the immune system and endometriosis, it’s all speculation and anecdotea online. However, I know endometriosis has compromised my immunity to colds and other viruses, and if you’re reading this you probably know it too. It’s an instinct, as keen and clear to me as my pain was when everyone around me was telling me it wasn’t real.
I expect the scientific world will catch up with to this detail in the future. Perhaps (as some have speculated) endometriosis’ possible auto-immune disease status will be clarified, maybe with time this will be acknowledged as a wide symptom of the illness, or eventually, the long term effects of the current treatments will be realised.
I don’t need a doctor to tell me the facts about my lowered immunity, but I do expect us all as patients to talk about this aspect of our illness more to get it wider acknowledged.