How Your Immune System Works

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The immune system is an amazing protection system that plays an integral role in keeping the body’s enemies at bay, working around the clock and largely in the background unnoticed.

We are surrounded by billions of viruses, bacteria, toxins, parasites and microbes. Many of these pose a threat to our bodies, some more serious than others.

To these organisms, the body offers an endless source of energy and reproductive opportunities. Fortunately, however, it’s not easy for these organisms to enter the body, thanks to the immune system.

When they go up against a human, the world’s microscopic invaders are met with a great number of barriers. The skin is very thick making it difficult to penetrate. What’s more, the body produces substances that harm any organisms attempting to enter.

The openings of the nose, eyes and mouth are protected by sticky mucus or fluids that capture foreign organisms. The respiratory tract protects itself with tiny hairs called cilia. If intruders manage to make it to the stomach, the acids there are designed to kill.

Days come and go and we don’t even realize our immune systems are hard at work defending our bodies until something happens to make their functions more evident to us.

You might get a cut or a sliver. Bacteria take the opportunity to cause an infection. The immune system immediately responds, attacks the threat and seals the wound. Similarly, when an insect bite swells up, gets red and begins to itch, it is evidence of the immune system at work.

Every day we consume germs by the thousands, most of which are killed either in saliva or stomach acid. Occasionally when germs get through, a cold or flu or food poisoning may arise. The immune system responds with sneezing, coughing, vomiting or diarrhea to reject the invaders. It also uses fever, swelling or dehydration to make the body an unsuitable host.

In fact, most of the symptoms of human ailments are simply the immune system doing its job. Aches and pains draw attention to ailments. This is certainly true of allergies, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few. And some medical conditions are the direct result of an immune system that’s malfunctioning.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), for example, can severely weaken the body’s defenses. That can in turn lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), whereby the immune system is so badly damaged that opportunistic infections occur.

Over the past 30 years, tremendous biomedical and behavioral advances have been made in preventing, diagnosing and treating HIV. Much has been learned about the functioning of the immune system in the process, helping scientists to develop new therapies for boosting the body’s defenses.

In the meantime, nature’s first line of defense against disease and decay continues to function just as it has since prehistoric times—the wondrous immune system—ever vigilant in protecting human health.

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