How Immune System Works

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Your immune system is an interactive network of organs, white blood cells and proteins that protect your body from viruses and bacteria or indeed any foreign substances.

Every minute of every hour of every day we are continuously being exposed to dangerous organisms that we inhale or swallow, or that stick to our skin or our mucous membranes. These pathogens would cause disease if it were not for our defensive mechanisms.

When our system is working properly, we don't even notice these infectious agents. But when our immune system is compromised, ie it is underactive or overactive, we develop infections or other medical conditions.

How this defensive system works

Your immune system works to (1) neutralize and remove pathogens like bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi that enter the body, (2) recognize and neutralize harmful substances from the environment, and (3) fight against the body's own cells that are changing due to an illness.

Whether these pathogens or other harmful substances penetrate and cause disease is a result of both their pathogenicity (ie, how virulent they are) and the integrity of your body's defence mechanisms.

The essential function of this system in its defence of your body is best illustrated when it goes wrong... underactivity (or immunodeficiency) can result in severe infections and tumours, and overactivity in allergic and autoimmune diseases.

If our immune system works properly to protect us, we never notice it. But when its performance is compromised, we develop illnesses.

For it to be able to work properly it must be able to distinguish between two types of cells, organisms and substances... 'self' and 'non-self'.

'Self' refers to cells etc inside your body... 'non-self' refers to foreign bodies, cells etc from outside your body getting into your body... these are called antigens.

Your immune system can normally distinguish between your own cells and antigens. For example, the proteins on the surfaces of your own cells will be different than the proteins on the surfaces of antigens such as viruses, bacteria and fungi. The system can detect these differing proteins. Once it has detected antigens, it will attack them to destroy them.

There are two parts to your immune system:

  • a basic system that works as a general defence system against pathogens (organisms that cause disease), and

  • an adaptive system that remembers specific pathogens with whom it has already had contact and will attack them if they reappear.

As you can see, the system adapts itself and learns so it can fight against bacteria or viruses that change over time. The two parts of your immune system complement each other in their reactions to a pathogen.

Breakdowns in the immune system

This system, like any other system, can breakdown. This can happen in several ways:

  1. Rather than operating normally against antigens that enter your body, your system can overreact... this is called an excessive immune response.

  2. The system, due to damage, reacts too slowly against invading pathogens... this is called an immune deficiency.

  3. The system mistakenly begins attacking the cells of your own body... this is called an autoimmune attack.

Consequently, your immune system can suffer from several major disorders. As examples:

1] Allergies... an allergy is an immune system response to a foreign substance that's not harmful to your body. These foreign substances are called allergens. They can include certain foods, pollen, or pet dander.

Your immune system's job is to keep you healthy by fighting harmful pathogens. It does this by attacking anything it thinks could put your body in danger. Depending on the allergen, this response may involve inflammation, sneezing, or a host of other symptoms.

The system normally adjusts to your environment. For example, when your body encounters something like pollen, it should realize it's harmless. In people who are allergic to pollen the immune system perceives it as an outside invader threatening the body and attacks it, causing inflammation.

This can result in one or more allergic diseases such as food allergies, asthma, hay fever or dermatitis.

2] Immune deficiency diseases... a weakened defensive system will prevent your body from fighting infections and diseases. This type of disorder makes it easier for you to catch viruses and bacterial infections.

Immunodeficiency disorders are either congenital or acquired. A congenital, or primary, disorder is one you were born with. Acquired, or secondary, disorders you get later in life. Acquired disorders are more common than congenital disorders.

Anything that weakens your immune system can lead to a secondary immunodeficiency disorder. Examples include... exposure to bodily fluids infected with HIV... growing older... diabetes... eating too little protein... too little sleep... cancer and chemotherapy drugs... and many more.

Impairment of the system can lead to infections that can threaten your life.

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