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Recognition of immunodeficiency in the newborn period

E Richard Stiehm, MD
Tim Niehues, MD
Ofer Levy, MD, PhD
Section Editor
Francisco A Bonilla, MD, PhD
Deputy Editor
Elizabeth TePas, MD, MS


The placenta has a microbiome, and the fetal immune system may already be exposed to some microbes before birth [1,2]. Fetal immune cells (eg, dendritic cells) already respond to maternal, dietary, and microbial antigens but are biased towards suppression of inflammation [3]. After birth, the newborn acutely faces an environment swarming with microbes. The normal newborn's immune system is anatomically intact, antigenically largely naïve, and demonstrates somewhat reduced function of several immune pathways. Reduced proinflammatory responses may facilitate the transition from the intrauterine environment to the outside world, including colonization with the commensal microbiome [4,5]. Apart from anatomic characteristics (eg, thin mucosal barriers), impaired proinflammatory and T helper cell type 1 (Th1) cytokine production and diminished cell-mediated immunity render the newborn more vulnerable to infection. However, most infants survive this period without illness due to intact innate immunity, other adaptive defense mechanisms, and maternally transferred immunoglobulin G (IgG).

Some newborns inherit a genetic immune defect that manifests at birth or early infancy, termed primary immunodeficiency (PID). PIDs are collectively relatively common, occurring in up to approximately 1 in every 1200 individuals [6,7]. The incidence of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and other PIDs are reviewed in detail separately in the appropriate topics. (See "Newborn screening for primary immunodeficiencies" and "Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID): An overview", section on 'Epidemiology'.)

This topic is an overview of the presentation and identification of the general types of immune defects in the newborn/neonate (infants within the first 28 days of life) and young infant (up to three months of age), including primary and secondary immunodeficiencies. It also covers initial management and when to refer to an immunology specialist. The diagnosis of specific immunodeficiencies is discussed separately in topic reviews on the individual disorders, as is a detailed discussion of the laboratory evaluation of the immune system, including more advanced studies. The evaluation of the child with recurrent infections is also covered separately. (See "Laboratory evaluation of the immune system" and "Approach to the child with recurrent infections".)

The development of the adaptive immune system and normal newborn immunity are discussed in detail separately. (See "Normal B and T lymphocyte development" and "Immunity of the newborn".)


Factors that increase the likelihood of giving birth to an infant with an immunodeficiency include genetic factors leading to primary immunodeficiencies (PIDs) and multiple other factors that can lead to secondary immunodeficiency (eg, immaturity, infection, maternal illness, medications, anatomic abnormalities).

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Literature review current through: Dec 2017. | This topic last updated: Sep 27, 2017.
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