Your body has a natural way of fending off germs to keep you from getting sick. There are many little bugs that you just don’t need to worry about because they never even get the chance to do you harm — all thanks to your immune system.
That immune system is a powerful line of defense. But sometimes it doesn’t work as efficiently as it should or needs a little bit of a tune-up to give you the best protection possible. When that happens, your doctor might refer you to an immunologist to give you the care you need.
What is an immunologist?
Immunologists are medical professionals who focus their efforts on the treatment and study of the immune system. Without a properly functioning immune system, the human body could fall prey to any number of bacteria, parasites, or viruses.
There are a number of ways for the immune system to fail to interact appropriately with the different organisms it comes into contact with, and immunologists can be further divided into the different fields they specialize in. These physicians can be trained to manage:
- Autoimmune disorders, in which the immune system misidentifies its own tissue and attacks parts of the body it’s meant to defend
- Hypersensitivity reactions, in which the body responds negatively to elements in the environment that should be harmless
- Immunodeficiency disorders, in which the immune system simply fails to defend the body from harmful organisms in the environment
Reasons to see an immunologist
While your doctor can handle your day-to-day care needs, she might not be equipped to handle cases that involve deficiencies in your immune system proper. Your treatment options will depend on the underlying immune disorder, so it’s important to see an immunologist who understands these conditions and can give you a correct diagnosis.
There are a variety of conditions for which you might be sent to an immunologist, such as:
- Asthma: a hypersensitivity reaction which involves an inflammation of the airways. Many who suffer from asthma suffer from a number of allergies as well. An immunologist works to identify the source of an asthma disorder and reduce its symptoms as much as possible.
- Type 1 diabetes: an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system targets and destroys the body’s own insulin-producing cells. The treatment for type 1 diabetes often requires a complex, multi-pronged approach, and immunologists can be a vital part of the process.
- HIV/AIDS: a well-known autoimmune and immunodeficiency disorder in which the body targets its own immune system and makes itself vulnerable to other diseases. Immunologists are specially trained to treat this disorder and reduce or delay its affects.
What to expect from an immunologist?
An immunologist’s first step is diagnostic testing to determine what exactly you have and what its cause might have been. Immunologists can prescribe different treatment options depending on the circumstances and severity of your case.
- Some cancer cases can benefit from increasing the immune system’s ability to fight cancer cells and respond appropriately to chemotherapy. To that end, immunologists might practice immunotherapy to help the immune system target cancer and prevent its spread to other parts of the body.
- People who suffer from allergies may be unable to avoid the causes of their discomfort at certain times of year. Immunologists can help you find ways to more effectively manage your allergies and even prescribe medication, such as antihistamines, to improve the condition.
- Asthma cases typically focus on both long-term management and quick relief. Although inhalers can help clear the airway as needed, inhaled corticosteroids may gradually reduce the inflammation that causes asthma in the first place. An immunologist can prescribe this treatment and monitor its progress over time.
Checking your provider’s qualifications
Immune disorders have the potential to be very dangerous, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know more about the immunologist you’ve been referred to. Immunologists undergo a fair amount of training and need to meet certain licensing requirements that other doctors do not.
To become an immunologist, students need to obtain a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree and pass the three-part United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). In addition, licensed physicians who want to work as immunologists must obtain certification from the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. A working immunologist will also need to pursue annual continuing education and submit to periodic assessments.
Your first meeting
Your first appointment with your immunologist may seem overwhelming. To help you get the most out of the referral, think ahead and ask any important questions that come to mind, such as:
- Might there be any side-effects with my treatment?
- Are your certifications current?
- How many people with my condition have you treated in the past?
If you want to learn more about your immunologist before your appointment, you can try running an Internet search to review whether he’s board certified in your state. You can also check the CareDash database to check for any malpractice claims or other areas of concern ahead of your meeting.