The immune response is how your body recognizes and defends itself against bacteria, viruses, and substances that appear foreign and harmful to the body.
The immune system protects the body from potentially harmful substances by recognizing and responding to antigens. Antigens are molecules (usually proteins) on the surface of cells, viruses, fungi, or bacteria. Nonliving substances such as toxins, chemicals, drugs, and foreign particles (such as a splinter) can be antigens. The immune system recognizes and destroys substances that contain these antigens.
Even your own body cells have proteins that are antigens. These include a group of antigens called HLA antigens. Your immune system learns to see these antigens as normal and does not usually react against them.
Innate, or nonspecific, immunity is a defense system that you are born with. It protects you against all antigens. Innate immunity involves barriers that keep harmful materials from entering your body. These barriers form the first line of defense in the immune response. Examples of anatomical innate immunity include:
- Cough reflex
- Enzymes in tears and skin oils
- Mucus, which traps bacteria and small particles
- Stomach acid
Innate immunity also comes in a protein chemical form, called innate humoral immunity. Examples include: the body’s complement system and substances called interferon and interleukin-1 (which causes fever).
If an antigen gets past these barriers, it is attacked and destroyed by other parts of the immune system.
Acquired immunity is immunity that develops with exposure to various antigens. Your immune system builds a defense that is specific to that antigen.
Passive immunity involves antibodies that are produced in a body other than your own. Infants have passive immunity because they are born with antibodies that are transferred through the placenta from the mother. These antibodies disappear between 6 and 12 months of age.
Passive immunization involves injection of antiserum, which contains antibodies that are formed by another person or animal. It provides immediate protection against an antigen, but does not provide long-lasting protection. Gamma globulin (given for hepatitis exposure) and tetanus antitoxin are examples of passive immunization.
The immune system includes certain types of white blood cells. It also includes chemicals and proteins in the blood, such as antibodies, complement proteins, and interferon. Some of these directly attack foreign substances in the body, and others work together to help the immune system cells.
Lymphocytes are white blood cells, which includes B cells and T cells.
B cells produce antibodies. Antibodies attach to a specific antigen and make it easier for the immune cells to destroy the antigen.
T cells attack antigens directly and help control of the immune response. They also release chemicals, known as interleukins, which control the entire immune response.
As lymphocytes develop, they normally learn to tell the difference between your own body tissues and substances that are not normally found in your body. Once B cells and T cells are formed, a few of those cells will multiply and provide “memory” for the immune system. This allows the immune system to respond faster and more efficiently the next time you are exposed to the same antigen, and in many cases will prevent you from getting sick. For example, an individual who has had chickenpox or has been immunized against chickenpox is immune from getting chickenpox again.
The inflammatory response (inflammation) occurs when tissues are injured by bacteria, trauma, toxins, heat, or any other cause. The damaged tissue releases chemicals including histamine, bradykinin, and serotonin. These chemicals cause blood vessels to leak fluid into the tissues, causing swelling. This helps isolate the foreign substance from further contact with body tissues.
The chemicals also attract white blood cells called phagocytes that “eat” microorganisms and dead or damaged cells. This process is called phagocytosis. Phagocytes eventually die. Pus is formed from a collection of dead tissue, dead bacteria, and live and dead phagocytes.
Immune System Disorders and Allergies
Immune system disorders occur when the immune response is inappropriate, excessive, or lacking. Allergies involve an immune response to a substance that, in the majority of people, the body perceives as harmless.
Vaccination (immunization) is a way to trigger the immune response. Small doses of an antigen, such as dead or weakened live viruses, are given to activate immune system “memory” (activated B cells and sensitized T cells). Memory allows your body to react quickly and efficiently to future exposures.
Complications Due to an Altered Immune Response
An efficient immune response protects against many diseases and disorders. An inefficient immune response allows diseases to develop. Inadequate, inappropriate, or excessive immune response causes immune system disorders.
Complications related to altered immune responses include:
- Allergy or hypersensitivity
- Autoimmune disorders
- Blood transfusion reaction
- Disease development
- Graft versus host disease
- Immunodeficiency disorders
- Serum sickness
- Transplant rejection