Immune System

The Immune System

What is the immune system?

The immune system works to keep
germs out of the body and destroy any that get in. It’s made up of a complicated
network of cells and organs. It protects the body from infection.


Illustration of the immune system

Lymph nodes are part of the immune
system. They send out lymphocytes. These are a certain type of white blood cell that
fights infection. The blood vessels and lymph vessels carry the lymphocytes to and
from
different areas in the body. Each lymph organ plays a role in making and activating
lymphocytes. Organs in the lymph system include:

  • Adenoids. Two glands at the
    back of the nasal passage.

  • Blood vessels. The arteries,
    veins, and capillaries that blood flows through.

  • Bone marrow. The soft, fatty tissue found inside bones where blood cells are made.

  • Lymph nodes. Small organs
    shaped like beans. They are found all over the body. They connect through the
    lymphatic vessels.

  • Lymph vessels. A network of
    channels all over the body that carry lymphocytes to the lymph organs and
    bloodstream.

  • Peyer’s patches. Lymph tissue
    in the small intestine.

  • Spleen. A fist-sized organ
    located in the left side of the belly (abdomen).

  • Thymus. A small organ behind the breastbone.

  • Tonsils. Two oval masses in the back of the throat.

What are lymphocytes?

Lymphocytes are a type of white
blood cell that fights infection. They are vital to a healthy immune system.

How are lymphocytes formed?

Blood cells and immune cells are
made in the bone marrow. Certain cells will become part of the group of lymphocytes.
Others will become part of another type of immune cell called phagocytes. Once the
lymphocytes are formed, some will continue to grow in the bone marrow and become B
cells. Other lymphocytes will finish growing in the thymus and become T cells. B and
T
cells are the 2 major groups of lymphocytes that recognize and attack germs.

Once mature, some lymphocytes will
stay in the lymph organs. Others will keep moving around the body through the lymphatic
vessels and bloodstream. They will also move into the organs and tissues of the
body.

How do lymphocytes fight infection?

Each type of lymphocyte fights
infection differently. But the goal of protecting the body from infection remains
the
same. The B cells make specific antibodies to fight germs. The T cells kill the germs
by
killing the body cells that are affected. T cells also release chemicals (cytokines).
These are cellular messengers. 

Other types of white blood cells
are engulfing cells (phagocytes) and natural killer cells (cytotoxic cells). These
cells
actually destroy the germs.

What are disorders of the immune system?

When the immune system doesn’t work
correctly, it leaves you at risk for disease. Allergies and being very sensitive to
certain substances are both considered immune system disorders. The immune system
also
plays a role in rejecting transplanted organs or tissue. Other examples of immune
disorders include:

  • Autoimmune diseases. These
    include juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and
    certain types of anemia.

  • Immunodeficiency diseases.
    These include AIDS and severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).

What is an infectious disease?

An infectious disease is a
condition caused by 1 or more of the following types of germs:

  • Viruses

  • Bacteria

  • Parasites

  • Fungi

Infectious diseases can range from
common illnesses such as a cold to long-term (chronic) treatable conditions such as
HIV
infection and herpes. They also include often deadly illnesses such as rabies and
Ebola.
Depending on the disease-causing germ, an infectious disease can be spread through
some
or all of the following ways:

  • Sexual contact, including
    vaginal, anal, and oral sex

  • Breathing in airborne droplets of the disease after an infected person coughs
    or sneezes

  • Contact with infected blood, such as when sharing hypodermic needles

  • Contact with an infected area on the skin

  • Insects such as mosquitoes or
    ticks. These draw blood from an infected host and then bite a healthy person.

  • Eating contaminated food

  • Contact with contaminated water

  • Other methods that can pass
    on a disease

In developed countries, most
infections are spread through sexual contact, airborne, bloodborne, and direct skin
contact.

How do antibiotics work against infections?

Antibiotic medicines are used to
treat bacterial infections. Antibiotics don’t work against viral infections. For some
infections, no antibiotics will work any faster than what the body can do on its own.
Other infections may not have an antibiotic known to work against them. Antibiotics
that work for one type of germ may not work for others. Overusing or misusing
antibiotics can lead to bacteria that can’t be stopped by an antibiotic (antibiotic
resistance). It is important to take antibiotics correctly. That means taking them
as
directed and for the full length of the prescription. Doing this will fully treat
the
infection.