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.
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.
- immunodeficiency disorders (primary or acquired)
- autoimmune disorders (in which the body's own immune system attacks its own tissue as foreign matter)
- allergic disorders (in which the immune system overreacts in response to an antigen)
- cancers of the immune system
Immunodeficiencies happen when a part of the immune system is missing or not working properly. Some people are 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).
- IgA deficiency is the most common immunodeficiency disorder. IgA is an immunoglobulin that is found primarily in the saliva and other body fluids that help guard the entrances to the body. IgA deficiency is a disorder in which the body doesn't produce enough of the antibody IgA. People with IgA deficiency tend to have allergies or get more colds and other respiratory infections, but the condition is usually not severe.
- Severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) is also known as the "bubble boy disease" after a Texas boy with SCID who lived in a germ-free plastic bubble. SCID is a serious immune system disorder that occurs because of a lack of both B and T lymphocytes, which makes it almost impossible to fight infections.
- DiGeorge syndrome (thymic dysplasia), a birth defect in which kids are born without a thymus gland, is an example of a primary T-lymphocyte disease. The thymus gland is where T lymphocytes normally mature.
- Chediak-Higashi syndrome and chronic granulomatous disease(CGD) both involve the inability of the neutrophils to function normally as phagocytes.
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.
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection/AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a disease that slowly and steadily destroys the immune system. It is caused by HIV, a virus that wipes out certain types of lymphocytes called T-helper cells. Without T-helper cells, the immune system is unable to defend the body against normally harmless organisms, which can cause life-threatening infections in people who have AIDS. Newborns can get HIV infection from their mothers while in the uterus, during the birth process, or during breastfeeding. People can get HIV infection by having unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person or from sharing contaminated needles for drugs, steroids, or tattoos.
- Immunodeficiencies caused by medications. Some medicines suppress the immune system. One of the drawbacks of chemotherapy treatment for cancer, for example, is that it not only attacks cancer cells, but other fast-growing, healthy cells, including those found in the bone marrow and other parts of the immune system. In addition, people with autoimmune disorders or who have had organ transplants may need to take immunosuppressant medications, which also can reduce the immune system's ability to fight infections and can cause secondary immunodeficiency.
- Lupus: a chronic disease marked by muscle and joint pain and inflammation (the abnormal immune response also may involve attacks on the kidneys and other organs)
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis: a disease in which the body's immune system acts as though certain body parts (such as the joints of the knee, hand, and foot) are foreign tissue and attacks them
- Scleroderma: a chronic autoimmune disease that can lead to inflammation and damage of the skin, joints, and internal organs
- Ankylosing spondylitis: a disease that involves inflammation of the spine and joints, causing stiffness and pain
- Juvenile dermatomyositis: a disorder marked by inflammation and damage of the skin and muscles
Allergic disorders happen 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. Medicines called antihistamines can relieve most symptoms.
- Asthma, a respiratory disorder that can cause breathing problems, often involves an allergic response by the lungs. If the lungs are oversensitive to certain allergens (like pollen, molds, animal dander, or dust mites), breathing tubes can become narrowed and swollen, making it hard for a person to breathe.
- Eczema is an itchy rash also known as atopic dermatitis. Although not necessarily caused by an allergic reaction, eczema most often happens in kids and teens who have allergies, hay fever, or asthma or who have a family history of these conditions.
- Allergies of several types can affect kids and teens. Environmental allergies (to dust mites, for example), seasonal allergies (such as hay fever), drug allergies (reactions to specific medications or drugs), food allergies (such as to nuts), and allergies to toxins (bee stings, for example) are the common conditions people usually refer to as allergies.
Cancer happens when cells grow out of control. This can include 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 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.
The role of the immune system — a collection of structures and processes within the body — is to protect against disease or other potentially damaging foreign bodies. When functioning properly, the immune system identifies a variety of threats, including viruses, bacteria and parasites, and distinguishes them from the body's own healthy tissue, according to Merck Manuals.
Lymph nodes: Small, bean-shaped structures that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease and are part of the lymphatic system — which consists of bone marrow, spleen, thymus and lymph nodes, according to "A Practical Guide To Clinical Medicine" from the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Lymph nodes also contain lymph, the clear fluid that carries those cells to different parts of the body. When the body is fighting infection, lymph nodes can become enlarged and feel sore.
Spleen: The largest lymphatic organ in the body, which is on your left side, under your ribs and above your stomach, contains white blood cells that fight infection or disease. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the spleen also helps control the amount of blood in the body and disposes of old or damaged blood cells.
Bone marrow: The yellow tissue in the center of the bones produces white blood cells. This spongy tissue inside some bones, such as the hip and thigh bones, contains immature cells, called stem cells, according to the NIH. Stem cells, especially embryonic stem cells, which are derived from eggs fertilized in vitro (outside of the body), are prized for their flexibility in being able to morph into any human cell.
Lymphocytes: These small white blood cells play a large role in defending the body against disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. The two types of lymphocytes are B-cells, which make antibodies that attack bacteria and toxins, and T-cells, which help destroy infected or cancerous cells. Killer T-cells are a subgroup of T-cells that kill cells that are infected with viruses and other pathogens or are otherwise damaged. Helper T-cells help determine which immune responses the body makes to a particular pathogen.
Thymus: This small organ is where T-cells mature. This often-overlooked part of the immune system, which is situated beneath the breastbone (and is shaped like a thyme leaf, hence the name), can trigger or maintain the production of antibodies that can result in muscle weakness, the Mayo Clinic said. Interestingly, the thymus is somewhat large in infants, grows until puberty, then starts to slowly shrink and become replaced by fat with age, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Leukocytes: These disease-fighting white blood cells identify and eliminate pathogens and are the second arm of the innate immune system. A high white blood cell count is referred to as leukocytosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. The innate leukocytes include phagocytes (macrophages, neutrophils and dendritic cells), mast cells, eosinophils and basophils.
If immune system-related diseases are defined very broadly, then allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis, asthma, and eczema are very common. However, these actually represent a hyper-response to external allergens, according to Dr. Matthew Lau, chief, department of allergy and immunology at Kaiser Permanente Hawaii. Asthma and allergies also involve the immune system. A normally harmless material, such as grass pollen, food particles, mold or pet dander, is mistaken for a severe threat and attacked.