Through a series of steps called the immune response, the immune system attacks organisms and substances that invade body 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.
One of the important cells involved are white blood cells, also called leukocytes, which come in two basic types that combine to seek out and destroy disease-causing organisms or substances.
Leukocytes are produced or stored in many locations in the body, including the thymus, spleen, and bone marrow.
For this reason, they’re called the lymphoid organs. There are also clumps of lymphoid tissue throughout the body, primarily as lymph nodes, that house the leukocytes.
The leukocytes circulate through the body between the organs and nodes via lymphatic vessels and 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.
The two basic types of leukocytes are:
- Phagocytes, cells that chew up invading organisms
- Lymphocytes, cells that allow the body to remember and recognize previous invaders and help the body destroy them
A number of different cells are considered phagocytes. The most common type is the neutrophil, which primarily fights bacteria. If doctors are worried about a bacterial infection, they might 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.
The two kinds of lymphocytes are B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes. Lymphocytes start out in the bone marrow and either stay there and mature into B cells, or they leave for the thymus gland, where they mature into T cells. B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes have separate functions: 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.
Inside you, a daily battle is being waged and your immune system is at the frontline. Most of the time, you may not even notice it’s there, but over the course of your life your immune system will guard you against hundreds of potentially fatal threats. Emma Bryce explores the different components of this system and how, together, they do their vital work.
How it Works
When antigens (foreign substances that invade the body) are detected, several types of cells work together to recognize them and respond. These cells trigger the B lymphocytes to produce antibodies, which are specialized proteins that lock onto specific antigens.
Once produced, these antibodies stay in a person’s body, so that if his or her immune system encounters that antigen again, the antibodies are already there to do their job. So if someone gets sick with a certain disease, like chickenpox, that person usually won’t get sick from it again.
This is also how immunizations prevent certain diseases. An immunization introduces the body to an antigen in a way that doesn’t make someone sick, but does allow the body to produce antibodies that will then protect the 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’s the job of the T cells, which are part of the system that destroys antigens that have been tagged by antibodies or cells that have been infected or somehow changed. (Some T cells are actually called “killer cells.”) T cells also are involved in helping signal other cells (like phagocytes) to do their jobs.
Antibodies also can 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 specialised 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. 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.
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 the first line of defense in preventing diseases from entering the body. If this outer defensive wall is broken (as through a cut), the skin attempts to heal the break quickly and special immune cells on the skin attack invading germs.
The second kind of protection is adaptive (or active) immunity, which develops throughout our lives. Adaptive immunity involves the lymphocytes and develops as people 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 give a baby temporary immunity to diseases the mother has been exposed to. This can help protect the baby 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.
Cancers of the Immune System
Cancer happens when cells grow out of control. This can include cells of the immune system:
Leukaemia, 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 treatments, 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 child’s immune system stay stronger and fight illnesses by staying informed about your child’s condition and working closely with your doctor.