Whether you're stomping through the showers in your bare feet after gym class or touching the bathroom doorknob, you're being exposed to germs. Fortunately for most of us, the immune system is constantly on call to do battle with bugs that could put us out of commission.
The immune (pronounced: ih-MYOON) system, which is made up of special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs, defends people against germs and microorganisms every day. In most cases, the immune system does a great job of keeping people healthy and preventing infections. But sometimes, problems with the immune system can lead to illness and infection.
The immune system is the body's defense against infectious organisms and other invaders. Through a series of steps called the immune response, the immune system attacks organisms and substances that invade our systems and cause disease. The immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body.
The cells that are part of this defense system include white blood cells, also called leukocytes (pronounced: LOO-kuh-sytes). They come in two basic types (more on these below), which combine to seek out and destroy the organisms or substances that cause disease.
Leukocytes are produced and stored in many locations throughout the body, including the thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. For this reason, they are called the lymphoid (pronounced: LIM-foyd) organs. There are also clumps of lymphoid tissue throughout the body, primarily in the form of lymph nodes, that house the leukocytes.
The leukocytes circulate through the body between the organs and nodes by means of the lymphatic (pronounced: lim-FAT-ik) vessels. (You can think of the lymphatic vessels as a type of highway between the rest stops that are the lymphoid organs and lymph nodes.) Leukocytes can also circulate through the blood vessels. In this way, the immune system works in a coordinated manner to monitor the body for germs or substances that might cause problems.
There are two basic types of leukocytes:
A number of different cells are considered phagocytes. The most common type is the neutrophil (pronounced: NOO-truh-fil), which primarily fights bacteria. So when doctors are worried about a bacterial infection, sometimes they order a blood test to see if a patient has an increased number of neutrophils triggered by the infection. Other types of phagocytes have their own jobs to make sure that the body responds appropriately to a specific type of invader.
There are two kinds of lymphocytes: the B lymphocytes and the T lymphocytes. Lymphocytes start out in the bone marrow and either stay and mature there to become B cells or leave for the thymus gland, where they mature to become T cells.
B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes have separate jobs to do: B lymphocytes are like the body's military intelligence system, seeking out their targets and sending defenses to lock onto them. T cells are like the soldiers, destroying the invaders that the intelligence system has identified. Here's how it works.
A foreign substance that invades the body is called an antigen (pronounced: AN-tih-jun). When an antigen is detected, several types of cells work together to recognize and respond to it. These cells trigger the B lymphocytes to produce antibodies (pronounced: AN-tye-bah-deez). Antibodies are specialized proteins that lock onto specific antigens. Antibodies and antigens fit together like a key and a lock.
Once the B lymphocytes recognize specific antigens, they develop a memory for the antigen and will produce antibodies the next time the antigen enters a person's body. That's why if someone gets sick with a certain disease, like chickenpox, that person typically doesn't get sick from it again.
This is also why we use immunizations to prevent certain diseases. The immunization introduces the body to the antigen in a way that doesn't make a person sick, but it does allow the body to produce antibodies that will then protect that person from future attack by the germ or substance that produces that particular disease.
Although antibodies can recognize an antigen and lock onto it, they are not capable of destroying it without help. That is the job of the T cells. The T cells are part of the system that destroys antigens that have been tagged by antibodies or cells that have been infected or somehow changed. (There are actually T cells that are called "killer cells.") T cells are also involved in helping signal other cells (like phagocytes) to do their jobs.
Antibodies can also neutralize toxins (poisonous or damaging substances) produced by different organisms. Lastly, antibodies can activate a group of proteins called complement that are also part of the immune system. Complement assists in killing bacteria, viruses, or infected cells.
All of these specialized cells and parts of the immune system offer the body protection against disease. This protection is called immunity.
Humans have three types of immunity — innate, adaptive, and passive:
Everyone is born with innate (or natural) immunity, a type of general protection that humans have. Many of the germs that affect other species don't harm us. For example, the viruses that cause leukemia in cats or distemper in dogs don't affect humans. Innate immunity works both ways because some viruses that make humans ill — such as the virus that causes HIV/AIDS — don't make cats or dogs sick either.
Innate immunity also includes the external barriers of the body, like the skin and mucous membranes (like those that line the nose, throat, and gastrointestinal tract), which are our first line of defense in preventing diseases from entering the body. If this outer defensive wall is broken (like if you get a cut), the skin attempts to heal the break quickly and special immune cells on the skin attack invading germs.
We also have a second kind of protection called adaptive (or active) immunity. This type of immunity develops throughout our lives. Adaptive immunity involves the lymphocytes (as in the process described above) and develops as children and adults are exposed to diseases or immunized against diseases through vaccination.
Passive immunity is "borrowed" from another source and it lasts for a short time. For example, antibodies in a mother's breast milk provide an infant with temporary immunity to diseases that the mother has been exposed to. This can help protect the infant against infection during the early years of childhood.
Everyone's immune system is different. Some people never seem to get infections, whereas others seem to be sick all the time. As people get older, they usually become immune to more germs as the immune system comes into contact with more and more of them. That's why adults and teens tend to get fewer colds than kids — their bodies have learned to recognize and immediately attack many of the viruses that cause colds.
Disorders of the immune system can be broken down into four main categories:
Immunodeficiencies (pronounced: ih-myoon-o-dih-FIH-shun-seez) happen when a part of the immune system is not present or is not working properly.
Sometimes a person is born with an immunodeficiency — these are called primary immunodeficiencies. (Although primary immunodeficiencies are conditions that a person is born with, symptoms of the disorder sometimes may not show up until later in life.)
Immunodeficiencies also can be acquired through infection or produced by drugs. These are sometimes called secondary immunodeficiencies.
Immunodeficiencies can affect B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes, or phagocytes. The most common immunodeficiency disorder is IgA deficiency, in which the body doesn't produce enough of the antibody IgA, an immunoglobulin found primarily in the saliva and other body fluids that help guard the entrances to the body. People with IgA deficiency tend to have allergies or get more colds and other respiratory infections, but the condition is usually not severe.
Acquired (or secondary) immunodeficiencies usually develop after a person has a disease, although they can also be the result of malnutrition, burns, or other medical problems. Certain medicines also can cause problems with the functioning of the immune system.
Acquired (secondary) immunodeficiencies include:
In autoimmune disorders, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's healthy organs and tissues as though they were foreign invaders.
Some autoimmune diseases include:
Allergic disorders happen when the immune system overreacts when exposued to antigens in the environment. The substances that provoke such attacks are called allergens. The immune response can cause symptoms such as swelling, watery eyes, and sneezing, and even a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Taking medications called antihistamines can relieve most symptoms.
Allergic disorders include:
Cancer happens when cells grow out of control. This can also happen with the cells of the immune system. Leukemia, which involves abnormal overgrowth of leukocytes, is the most common childhood cancer. Lymphoma involves the lymphoid tissues and is also one of the more common childhood cancers. With current medications most cases of both types of cancer in kids and teens are curable.
Although immune system disorders usually can't be prevented, you can help your immune system stay stronger and fight illnesses by staying informed about your condition and working closely with the doctor.
And if you're lucky enough to be healthy, you can help your immune system keep you that way by washing your hands often to avoid infection, eating right, getting plenty of exercise, and getting regular medical checkups.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: May 2015
|Immune Deficiency Foundation (IDF) IDF's mission is to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with primary immunodeficiency diseases through research and education.|
|American Cancer Society The American Cancer Society is the nationwide community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to preventing cancer, saving lives and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, advocacy, and service. Call:(800) ACS-2345|
|American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology offers up-to-date information and a find-an-allergist search tool.|
|Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America (CFIDS) The CFIDS Association of America is a charitable organization dedicated to conquering chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Contact CFIDS at: Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America P.O. Box 220398|
Charlotte, NC 28222-0398 (704) 365-2343
|Arthritis Foundation The mission of this group is to support research to find the cure for and prevention of arthritis and to improve the quality of life for those affected by arthritis.|
|Lupus Foundation of America The mission of the Lupus Foundation of America is to educate and support those affected by lupus and find a cure. Call (800) 558-0121 for information.|
|National Eczema Association This site contains information about eczema, dermatitis, and sensitive skin.|
|American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) This nonprofit organization is dedicated to the support of AIDS research, prevention, treatment education, and advocacy.|
|Leukemia & Lymphoma Society The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is dedicated to funding blood-cancer research, education, and patient services. The Society's mission is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and myeloma, and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. Call: (914) 949-5213|
|Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) for Kids This website has information to help kids who are living with a food allergy.|
|Hand Washing Did you know that the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands? If you don't wash your hands frequently, you can pick up germs from other sources and then infect yourself.|
|Food Allergies Doctors are diagnosing more and more people with food allergies. Knowing what to expect and how to deal with food allergies can make a big difference in preventing serious illness.|
|Allergies Your eyes itch, your nose is running, you're sneezing, and you're covered in hives. The enemy known as allergies has struck again.|
|Eczema Eczema is a common skin problem among teens. If you have eczema, read this article to find out more about it and how you can deal with the skin stress.|
|Why Should I Care About Germs? Germs are tiny organisms that can cause disease - and they're so small that they can creep into your system without you noticing. Find out how to protect yourself.|
|Lupus Lupus is a disease that affects the immune system. Learn how lupus is treated, signs and symptoms, how to support a friend who has it, and more.|
|Staph Infections Staph bacteria can live harmlessly on many skin surfaces. But the bacteria can get into wounds and cause an infection. Get the details in this article for teens.|
|Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) Learn about juvenile idiopathic arthritis, a specific kind of arthritis that usually occurs in kids and teens under age 17.|
|Spleen and Lymphatic System The lymphatic system is an extensive drainage network that helps keep bodily fluid levels in balance and defends the body against infections.|
|Gastrointestinal Infections and Diarrhea Nearly everybody gets diarrhea every once in a while, and it's usually caused by gastrointestinal infections. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. Read this article to learn more.|
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