What is the immune system?

Your immune system is a large network of organs, white blood cells, proteins (antibodies) and chemicals. This system works together to protect you from foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi) that cause infection, illness and disease.

What does the immune system do and how does it work?

Your immune system works hard to keep you healthy. Its job is to keep germs out of your body or to destroy them or limit the extent of their harm if they get in.

When your immune system is working properly . . .

When your immune system is working properly, it can tell which cells are yours and which substances are foreign to your body. It activates, mobilizes, attacks and kills foreign invader germs that can cause you harm.

Your immune system learns about germs after you’ve been exposed to them too. Your body develops antibodies to protect you from those specific germs. An example of this concept occurs when you get a vaccine. Your immune system builds up antibodies to the foreign cells it finds in the vaccine and will quickly remember these foreign cells and destroy them if you are exposed to them in the future.

Sometimes doctors can prescribe antibiotics to help your immune system if you get sick. But antibiotics only kill certain bacteria. They don’t kill viruses.

When your immune system is not working properly . . .

When your immune system can’t mount a winning attack against an invader, a problem, such as an infection, develops. Also, sometimes your immune system mounts an attack when there is no invader or doesn’t stop an attack after the invader has been killed. These activities result in such problems as autoimmune diseases and allergic reactions.

What are the parts of the immune system?

Your immune system is made of up a complex collection of cells and organs. They all work together to protect you from germs and help you get better when you’re sick. The main parts of the immune system are:

  • White blood cells: Serving as an army against harmful bacteria and viruses, white blood cells search for and attack and destroy germs to keep you healthy. White blood cells are the key part of the immune system. There are many white blood cell types in the immune system. Each cell type either circulates in the bloodstream and throughout the body or resides in a particular tissue, waiting to be called into action. Each cell type has a specific mission in your body’s defense system. Each has a different way of recognizing a problem, communicating with other cells on the defense team and performing their function.
  • Lymph nodes: These small glands filter and destroy germs so they can’t spread to other parts of your body and make you sick. They also are part of your body’s lymphatic system. Lymph nodes contain immune cells that analyze the foreign invader brought to it and then activate, replicate and send the specific lymphocytes, which are white blood cells, to fight off that particular invader. You have hundreds of lymph nodes all over your body, including in your neck, armpits, and groin. Swollen, tender lymph nodes are a clue that your body is fighting an infection.
  • Spleen: Your spleen stores white blood cells that defend your body from foreign invaders. It also filters your blood, destroying old and damage red blood cells.
  • Tonsils and adenoids: Because they are located in your throat and nasal passage, tonsils and adenoids can trap foreign invaders (for example, bacteria or viruses) as soon as they enter your body. They have immune cells that produce antibodies that protect you from foreign invaders that cause throat and lung infections.
  • Thymus: This small organ in your upper chest beneath your breast bone helps mature a certain type of white blood cell. The specific task of this cell is to learn to recognize and remember an invader so that an attack can be quickly mounted the next time this invader is encountered.
  • Bone marrow: Stem cells in the spongy center of your bones develop into red blood cells, plasma cells and a variety of white blood cells and other types of immune cells. Your bone marrow makes billions of new blood cells every day and release them into the bloodstream.
  • Skin, mucous membranes and other first-line defenses: Your skin is the first line of defense in preventing and destroying germs before they enter your body. Skin produces oils and secretes other protective immune system cells. Mucous membranes line the respiratory, digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts. These membranes secrete mucus, which lubricates and moistens surfaces. Germs stick to mucus in the respiratory tract and then are moved out of the airways by hair-like structures called cilia. Tiny hairs in your nose catch germs. Enzymes found in sweat, tears, saliva and mucus membranes as well as secretions in the vagina all defend and destroy germs.
  • Stomach and bowel: Stomach acid kills many bacteria soon after they enter the body. You also have beneficial (good) bacteria in your intestines that kill harmful bacteria.

What conditions and disorders affect the immune system?

Many deficiencies and disorders can damage or disrupt the immune system. Some medicines make it harder for your body to fight infection.

Certain health conditions cause your immune system to attack healthy cells or make it hard for your immune system to protect you from harmful germs. They include:

  • Allergies: When the body overreacts to a harmless substance (such as food or pollen), the immune system launches a response. Your body fights its allergy triggers by releasing histamines that cause allergy symptoms. An allergic reaction can range from mild (sneezing or stuffy nose) to severe (breathing problems and death). Antihistamine medications help calm the symptoms.
  • Autoimmune disorders: These disorders occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells. Lupus, diabetes, Hashimoto’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis are examples of common autoimmune diseases.
  • Primary immunodeficiency disorders: These disorders are inherited (passed along in families). There are more than 100 primary immunodeficiency diseases (PIDD) that prevent the immune system from working the way it should.
  • Infections: HIV and mononucleosis (mono) are well-known infections that weaken the immune system. They lead to serious illness.
  • Cancer: Certain types of cancer, like leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma affect the immune system directly. These cancers occur when immune cells grow uncontrollably.
  • Sepsis: Sepsis is an overwhelming response of your body’s immune system to an infection. Your body’s response to the infection triggers widespread inflammation and causes a downward spiral of events that can end in organ damage, organ failure and death.
  • Medications: Some medications, such as corticosteroids, can weaken the immune system. And after an organ transplant, people take immunosuppressant medications. These medicines help prevent a failed transplant (rejection). However, these drugs increase your risk of infection and disease.

How can I keep my immune system healthy?

Just like the rest of your body, your immune system needs nourishment, rest, and a healthy environment to stay strong. Certain lifestyle changes have been proven to boost immune systems and help you avoid illness. To keep your immune system running smoothly, you should:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Lose weight or maintain a healthy body mass.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid alcohol or use it only in moderation.
  • Get enough sleep and exercise regularly.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Try to stress less and focus on mind/body wellness.
  • Make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines.

I seem to get sick a lot. When should I call my doctor?

If you feel like you’re always sick or you have symptoms that never seem to go away, you should visit your doctor. Some symptoms could be signs of an autoimmune disease. These symptoms include:

  • Exhaustion or fatigue (always feeling tired).
  • Sore, aching muscles, especially if you also have a fever.
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention.
  • Hair loss.
  • Inflammation, rashes, or redness anywhere on your body.
  • Fingers or toes that tingle or are numb.

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