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Immune System

The immune 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.

About the Immune System

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 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. The cells involved are white blood cells, or 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:

  1. phagocytes, cells that chew up invading organisms
  2. 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.

Here's 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, specialized proteins that lock onto specific antigens.

Once produced, these antibodies continue to exist in a person's body, so that if the same antigen is presented to the immune system again, the antibodies are already there to do their job. So if someone gets sick with a certain disease, like chickenpox, that person typically doesn'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 specialized cells and parts of the immune system offer the body protection against disease. This protection is called immunity.

Immunity

Humans have three types of immunity — innate, adaptive, and passive:

Innate Immunity

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.

Adaptive Immunity

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

Passive immunity is "borrowed" from another source and it lasts for a short time. For example, antibodies in a mother's breast milk provide a baby with 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.

Problems of the Immune System

Disorders of the immune system fall into four main categories:

  1. immunodeficiency disorders (primary or acquired)
  2. autoimmune disorders (in which the body's own immune system attacks its own tissue as foreign matter)
  3. allergic disorders (in which the immune system overreacts in response to an antigen)
  4. cancers of the immune system

Immunodeficiency Disorders

Immunodeficiencies occur when a part of the immune system is not present or is not working properly. Sometimes a person is born with an immunodeficiency (known as primary immunodeficiencies), although symptoms of the disorder might not appear 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. Examples of primary immunodeficiencies that can affect kids and teens are:

Acquired (or secondary) immunodeficiencies usually develop after someone 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:

Autoimmune Disorders

In autoimmune disorders, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's healthy organs and tissues as though they were foreign invaders. Autoimmune diseases include:

Allergic Disorders

Allergic disorders occur when the immune system overreacts to exposure 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. Medications called antihistamines can relieve most symptoms.

Allergic disorders include:

Cancers of the Immune System

Cancer occurs when cells grow out of control. This also can 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 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 child's immune system stay stronger and fight illnesses by staying informed about your child's condition and working closely with your doctor.

Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: October 2012

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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