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The Lymph System and Immunity

The lymph system is our body's front line defense against infection, disease, cancer.

This is also the reason those of us with lymphedema are so susceptible to cellulitis and other fections associated with lymphedema]]

A limb afflicted with lymphedema is considered to be immunocompromised due to the malfunction of the lymph system

The Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is composed of lymph vessels, lymph nodes, and organs. The functions of this system include the absorption of excess fluid and its return to the blood stream, absorption of fat (in the villi of the small intestine) and the immune system function.

Lymph vessels are closely associated with the circulatory system vessels. Larger lymph vessels are similar to veins. Lymph capillaries are scatted throughout the body. Contraction of skeletal muscle causes movement of the lymph fluid through valves.

Lymph organs include the bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus. Bone marrow contains tissue that produces lymphocytes. B-lymphocytes (B-cells) mature in the bone marrow. T lymphocytes (T-cells) mature in the thymus gland. Other blood cells such as monocytes and leukocytes are produced in the bone marrow. Lymph nodes are areas of concentrated lymphocytes and macrophages along the lymphatic veins. The spleen is similar to the lymph node except that it is larger and filled with blood. The spleen serves as a reservoir for blood, and filters or purifies the blood and lymph fluid that flows through it. If the spleen is damaged or removed, the individual is more susceptible to infections. The thymus secretes a hormone, thymosin, that causes pre-T-cells to mature (in the thymus) into T-cells.


Immunity is the body's capability to repel foreign substances and cells. The nonspecific responses are the first line of defense. Highly specific responses are the second line of defense and are tailored to an individual threat. The immune response includes both specific and nonspecific components. Nonspecific responses block the entry and spread of disease-causing agents. Antibody-mediated and cell-mediated responses are two types of specific response. The immune system is associated with defense against disease-causing agents, problems in transplants and blood transfusions, and diseases resulting from over-reaction (autoimmune, allergies) and under-reaction (AIDS).

General Defenses

Barriers to entry are the skin and mucous membranesThe skin is a passive barrier to infectious agents such as bacteria and viruses. The organisms living on the skin surface are unable to penetrate the layers of dead skin at the surface. Tears and saliva contain enzymes that breakdown bacterial cell walls. Skin glands secrete chemicals that retard the growth of |bacteria. Mucus membranes lining the respiratory, digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts secrete mucus that forms another barrier. Physical barriers are the first line of defense.

When microorganisms penetrate skin or epithelium lining respiratory, digestive, or urinary tracts, inflammation results. Damaged cells release chemical signals such as histamine that increase capillary blood flow into the affected area (causing the areas to become heated and reddened). The heat makes the environment unfavorable for microbes, promotes healing, raises mobility of white blood cells, and increases the metabolic rate of nearby cells. Capillaries pass fluid into interstitial areas, causing the infected/injured area to swell. Clotting factors trigger formation of many small blood clots. Finally, monocytes (a type of white blood cell) clean up dead microbes, cells, and debris.

The inflammatory response is often strong enough to stop the spread of disease-causing agents such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The response begins with the release of chemical signals and ends with cleanup by monocytes. If this is not enough to stop the invaders, the complement system and immune response act.

Protective proteins that are produced in the liver include the complement system of proteins. The complement system proteins bind to a bacterium and open pores in its membrane through which fluids and salt move, swelling and bursting the cel.

The complement system directly kills microbes, supplements inflammatory response, and works with the immune response. It complements the actions of the immune system. Complement proteins are made in the liver and become active in a sequence (C1 activates C2, etc.). The final five proteins form a membrane-attack complex (MAC) that embeds itself into the plasma membrane of the attacker. Salts enter the invader, facilitating water to cross the membrane, swelling and bursting the microbe. Complement also functions in the immune response by tagging the outer surface of invaders for attack by phagocytes.

The complement system of proteins and their functioning. Image from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates ( and WH Freeman (, used with permission.

Interferon is a species-specific chemical produced by cells that are viral attack. It alerts nearby cells to prepare for a virus. The cells that have been contacted by interferon resist all viral attacks.

Specific Defenses

The immune system also generates specific responses to specific invaders.

The immune system is more effective than the nonspecific methods, and has a memory component that improves response time when an invader of the same type (or species) is again encountered.

Immunity results from the production of antibodies specific to a given antigen (antibody-generators, located on the surface of an invader). Antibodies bind to the antigens on invaders and kill or inactivate them in several ways. Most antibodies are themselves proteins or are a mix of protein and polysaccharides. Antigens can be any molecule that causes antibody production.


White blood cells known as lymphocytes arise from by mitosis of stem cells in the bone marrow. Some lymphocytes migrate to the thymus and become T cells that circulate in the blood and are associated with the lymph nodes and spleen. B cells remain in the bone marrow and develop before moving into the circulatory and lymph systems. B cells produce antibodies.

Antibody-mediated (humoral immunity)

Antibody mediated (humoral) immunity is regulated by B cells and the antibodies they produce. Glossary: Cell-mediated immunity |Cell-mediated immunity]] is controlled by T cells. Antibody-mediated reactions defend against invading viruses and bacteria. Cell-mediated immunity concerns cells in the body that have been infected by viruses and bacteria, protect against parasites, fungi, and protozoans, and also kill cancerous body cells.

Antibody-mediated Immunity Stages in this process are:

  • antigen detection
  • activation of helper T cells
  • antibody production by B cells
  • Each stage is directed by a specific cell type.


Macrophages are white blood cells that continually search for foreign (nonself) antigenic molecules, viruses, or microbes. When found, the macrophages engulfs and destroys them. Small fragments of the antigen are displayed on the outer surface of the macrophage plasma membrane.

Helper T Cells

Helper T cells are macrophages that become activated when they encounter the antigens now displayed on the macrophage surface. Activated T cells identify and activate B cells.

B Cells

B cells divide, forming plasma cells and B memory cells. Plasma cells make and release between 2000 and 20,000 antibody molecules per second into the blood for the next four or five days. B memory cells live for months or years, and are part of the immune memory system.


Antibodies bind to specific antigens in a lock-and-key fashion, forming an antigen-antibody complex. Antibodies are a type of protein molecule known as immunoglobulins. There are five classes of immunoglobulins: IgG, IgA, IgD, IgE, and IgM.

The five classes of Ig antibodies. Image from Purves et al., Life: The Science of Biology, 4th Edition, by Sinauer Associates ( and WH Freeman (, used with permission.

Antibodies are Y-shaped molecules composed of two identical long polypeptide (Heavy or H chains) and two identical short polypeptides (Light or L chains).

Function of antibodies includes:

  • Recognition and binding to antigens
  • Inactivation of the antigen

A unique antigenic determinant recognizes and binds to a site on the antigen, leading to the destruction of the antigen in several ways. The ends of the Y are the antigen-combining site that is different for each antigen. Click here to learn more about the different classes of antibodies.

Helper T Cells

Helper T cells activate B cells that produce antibodies. Supressor T cells slow down and stop the immune response of B and T cells, serving as an off switch for the immune system. Cytotoxic (or killer) T cells destroy body cells infected with a virus or bacteria. Memory T cells remain in the body awaiting the reintroduction of the antigen.

A cell infected with a virus will display viral antigens on its plasma membrane. Killer T cells recognize the viral antigens and attach to that cell's plasma membrane. The T cells secrete proteins that punch holes in the infected cell's plasma membrane. The infected cell's cytoplasm leaks out, the cell dies, and is removed by phagocytes. Killer T cells may also bind to cells of transplanted organs.

The immune system is the major component of this defense. Lymphocytes, monocytes, lymph organs, and lymph vessels make up the system. The immune system is able to distinguish self from non-self. Antigens are chemicals on the surface of a cell. All cells have these. The immune system checks cells and identifies them as “self” or “non-self”. Antibodies are proteins produced by certain lymphocytes in response to a specific antigen. B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes produce the antibodies. B-lymphocytes become plasma cells which then generate antibodies. T-lymphocytes attack cells which bear antigens they recognize. They also mediate the immune response.

The immune system and memory of infections

Secondary immunity, the resistance to certain diseases after having had them once, results from production of Memory B and T cells during the first exposure to the antigen. A second exposure to the same antigen produces a more massive and faster response. The secondary response is the basis for vaccination.


Vaccination is a term derived from the Latin vacca (cow, after the cowpox material used by Edward Jenner in the first vaccination). A vaccine stimulates the antibody production and formation of memory cells without causing of the disease. Vaccines are made from killed pathogens or weakened strains that cause antibody production but not the disease. Recombinant DNA techniques can now be used to develop even safer vaccines.

The immune system can develop long-term immunity to some diseases. Man can use this to develop vaccines, which produce induced immunity. Active immunity develops after an illness or vaccine. Vaccines are weakened (or killed) viruses or bacteria that prompt the development of antibodies. Application of biotechnology allows development of vaccines that are the protein (antigen) which in no way can cause the disease. Passive immunity is the type of immunity when the individual is given antibodies to combat a specific disease. Passive immunity is short-lived.

Blood Types, Rh, and Antibodies

There are 30 or more known antigens on the surface of blood cells. These form the blood groups or blood types. In a transfusion, the blood groups of the recipient and donor must be matched. If improperly matched, the recipient's immune system will produce antibodies causing clotting of the transfused cells, blocking circulation through capillaries and producing serious or even fatal results.

ABO blood types are determined by a gene, I (for isoagglutinin). There are three alleles, IA, IB and IO. Proteins produced by the A and B alleles are antigenic. Individuals with blood type A have the A antigen on the surface of their red blood cells, and antibodies to type B blood in their plasma. People with blood type B have the B antigen on their blood cells and antibodies against type A in their plasma. Individuals with type AB blood produce have antigens for A and B on their cell surfaces and no antibodies for either blood type A or B in their plasma. Type O individuals have no antigens on their red blood cells but antigens to both A and B are in their plasma.

People with type AB blood can receive blood of any type. Those with type O blood can donate to anyone. If a transfusion is made between an incompatible donor and recipient, the recipient's blood will undergo a cascade of events. Reaction of antigens on cells and antibodies in plasma will produce clumping that clogs capillaries, other cells burst, releasing hemoglobin that can crystallize in the kidney and lead to kidney failure.

The Rh (for the rhesus monkey in which it was discovered) blood group is made up of those Rh positive (Rh+) individuals who can make the Rh antigen and those Rh negative (Rh-) who cannot.

Hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN) results from Rh incompatibility between an Rh- mother and Rh+ fetus. Rh+ blood from the fetus enters the mother's system during birth, causing her to produce Rh antibodies. The first child is usually not affected, however subsequent Rh+ fetuses will cause a massive secondary reaction of the maternal immune system. To prevent HDN, Rh- mothers are given an Rh antibody during the first pregnancy with an Rh+ fetus and all subsequent Rh+ fetuses.

Organ Transplants and Antibodies

Success of organ transplants and skin grafts requires a matching of histocompatibility antigens that occur on all cells in the body. Chromosome 6 contains a cluster of genes known as the human leukocyte antigen complex (HLA) that are critical to the outcome of such procedures. The array of HLA alleles on either copy of our chromosome 6 is known as a haplotype.

The large number of alleles involved mean no two individuals, even in a family, will have the same identical haplotype. Identical twins have a 100% HLA match. The best matches are going to occur within a family. The preference order for transplants is identical twin > sibling > parent > unrelated donor. Chances of an unrelated donor matching the recipient range between 1 in 100,000-200,000. Matches across racial or ethnic lines are often more difficult. When HLA types are matched survival of transplanted organs dramatically increases.

Allergies and Disorders of the Immune System

The immune system can overreact, causing allergies or autoimmune diseases. Likewise, a suppressed, absent, or destroyed immune system can also result in disease and death.

Allergies result from immune system hypersensitivity to weak antigens that do not cause an immune response in most people. Allergens, substances that cause allergies, include dust, molds, pollen, cat dander, certain foods, and some medicines (such as penicillin). Up to 10% of the US population suffer from at least one allergy.

After exposure to an allergen, some people make IgE antibodies as well as B and T memory cells. Subsequent exposure to the same allergen causes a massive secondary immune response that releases plenty of IgE antibodies. These bind to mast cells found usually in connective tissues surrounding blood vessels. Mast cells then release histamine, which starts the inflammatory response. In some individuals the histamine release causes life-threatening anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock.

The immune system usually distinguishes “self” from “nonself”. The immune system learns the difference between cells of the body and foreign invaders. Autoimmune diseases result when the immune system attacks and destroys cells and tissues of the body. Juvenile diabetes, Grave's disease, Multiple sclerosis, Systemic lupus erythematosus, and Rheumatoid arthritis are some of the autoimmune diseases.

Myasthenia gravis (MG) is a muscle weakness caused by destruction of muscle-nerve connections. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is caused by antibodies attacking the myelin of nerve cells. Systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE) has the person forming a series of antibodies to their own tissues, such as kidneys (the leading cause of death in SLE patients) and the DNA in their own cellular nuclei. In systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the immune system attacks connective tissues and major organs of the body. Rheumatoid Arthritis; sufferers have damage to their joints. Some evidence supports Type I diabetes as an auto immune disease. Juvenile diabetes results from the destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Immunodeficiency diseases result from the lack or failure of one or more parts of the immune system. Affected individuals are susceptible to diseases that normally would not bother most people. Genetic disorders, Hodgkin's disease, cancer chemotherapy, and radiation therapy can cause immunodeficiency diseases.

Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) results from a complete absence of the cell-mediated and antibody-mediated immune responses. Affected individuals suffer from a series of seemingly minor infections and usually die at an early age. A small group suffering from adenosine deaminase (ADA) deficiency, a type of SCID, are undergoing gene therapy to provide them with normal copies of the defective gene.

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is currently receiving the most attention among the immunodeficiency diseases. AIDS is a collection of disorders resulting from the destruction of T cells by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a retrovirus. When HIV replicates in the human T cells, it buds from the T cell plasma membrane encased in a coat derived from the T cell plasma membrane. HIV selectively infects and kills T4 helper cells. The viral RNA is converted into DNA by the enzyme reverse transcriptase; this DNA can become incorporated into a human chromosome for months or years.

When the infected T cell is needed in the immune response, the viral genes are activated and the virus replicates, killing the infected cell and producing a new round on T4 cell infection. Gradually the number of T4 cells, the master on switch for the immune system, decline. The immune response grows less powerful, eventually failing. Premature death results from a series of rare diseases (such as fungal pneumonia and Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare cancer) that overwhelm the body and its compromised immune system.

Text ©1992, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, by M.J. Farabee, all rights reserved.

Use for educational purposes is encouraged

The Immune System

The Body's First Line of Defense

The immune system is a complex of organs–highly specialized cells and even a circulatory system separate from blood vessels–all of which work together to clear infection from the body.

Lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes are the parts of the special circulatory system that carries lymph, a transparent fluid containing white blood cells, chiefly lymphocytes.

The organs of the immune system, positioned throughout the body, are called lymphoid organs. The word “lymph” in Greek means a pure, clear stream–an appropriate description considering its appearance and purpose.

Antibodies produced by cells of the immune system recognize foreign antigens and mark them for destruction.

Lymphatic vessels form a circulatory system that operates in close partnership with blood circulation.

Lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes are the parts of the special circulatory system that carries lymph, a transparent fluid containing white blood cells, chiefly lymphocytes.

Organs and tissues of the immune system dot the body in a protective network of barriers to infection.

Lymph bathes the tissues of the body, and the lymphatic vessels collect and move it eventually back into the blood circulation. Lymph nodes dot the network of lymphatic vessels and provide meeting grounds for the immune system cells that defend against invaders. The spleen, at the upper left of the abdomen, is also a staging ground and a place where immune system cells confront foreign microbes. Organs and tissues of the immune system dot the body in a protective network of barriers to infection.

Pockets of lymphoid tissue are in many other locations throughout the body, such as the bone marrow and thymus. Tonsils, adenoids, Peyer's patches, and the appendix are also lymphoid tissues.

Both immune cells and foreign molecules enter the lymph nodes via blood vessels or lymphatic vessels. All immune cells exit the lymphatic system and eventually return to the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, lymphocytes are transported to tissues throughout the body, where they act as sentries on the lookout for foreign antigens.

How the Immune System Works

Cells that will grow into the many types of more specialized cells that circulate throughout the immune system are produced in the bone marrow. This nutrient-rich, spongy tissue is found in the center shafts of certain long, flat bones of the body, such as the bones of the pelvis. The cells most relevant for understanding vaccines are the lymphocytes, numbering close to one trillion.

The two major classes of lymphocytes are B cells, which grow to maturity in the bone marrow, and T cells, which mature in the thymus, high in the chest behind the breastbone.

B cells produce antibodies that circulate in the blood and lymph streams and attach to foreign antigens to mark them for destruction by other immune cells. B cells are part of what is known as antibody-mediated or humoral immunity, so called because the antibodies circulate in blood and lymph, which the ancient Greeks called, the body's “humors.”

B cells become plasma cells, which produce antibodies when a foreign antigen triggers the immune response.

Certain T cells, which also patrol the blood and lymph for foreign invaders, can do more than mark the antigens; they attack and destroy diseased cells they recognize as foreign. T lymphocytes are responsible for cell-mediated immunity (or cellular immunity). T cells also orchestrate, regulate and coordinate the overall immune response. T cells depend on unique cell surface molecules called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) to help them recognize antigen fragments.

Antibodies produced by cells of the immune system recognize foreign antigens and mark them for destruction.


The antibodies that B cells produce are basic templates with a special region that is highly specific to target a given antigen. Much like a car coming off a production line, the antibody's frame remains constant, but through chemical and cellular messages, the immune system selects a green sedan, a red convertible or a white truck to combat this particular invader.

Antibodies produced by cells of the immune system recognize foreign antigens and mark them for destruction.

However, in contrast to cars, the variety of antibodies is very large. Different antibodies are destined for different purposes. Some coat the foreign invaders to make them attractive to the circulating scavenger cells, phagocytes, that will engulf an unwelcome microbe.

When some antibodies combine with antigens, they activate a cascade of nine proteins, known as complement, that have been circulating in inactive form in the blood. Complement forms a partnership with antibodies, once they have reacted with antigen, to help destroy foreign invaders and remove them from the body. Still other types of antibodies block viruses from entering cells.

T Cells

T cells have two major roles in immune defense. Regulatory T cells are essential for orchestrating the response of an elaborate system of different types of immune cells.

Helper T cells, for example, also known as CD4 positive T cells (CD4+ T cells), alert B cells to start making antibodies; they also can activate other T cells and immune system scavenger cells called macrophages and influence which type of antibody is produced. Certain T cells, called CD8 positive T cells (CD8+ T cells), can become killer cells that attack and destroy infected cells. The killer T cells are also called cytotoxic T cells or CTLs (cytotoxic lymphocytes).

T lymphocytes become CD4+ or helper T cells, or they can become CD8+ cells, which in turn can become killer T cells, also called cytotoxic T cells.

Immune system process

Activation of helper T cells

After it engulfs and processes an antigen, the macrophage displays the antigen fragments combined with a Class II MHC protein on the macrophage cell surface. The antigen-protein combination attracts a helper T cell, and promotes its activation.

Activation of cytotoxic T cells

After a macrophage engulfs and processes an antigen, the macrophage displays the antigen fragments combined with a Class I MHC protein on the macrophage cell surface. A receptor on a circulating, resting cytotoxic T cell recognizes the antigen-protein complex and binds to it. The binding process and a helper T cell activate the cytotoxic T cell so that it can attack and destroy the diseased cell.

Activation of B cells to make antibody

A B cell uses one of its receptors to bind to its matching antigen, which the B cell engulfs and processes. The B cell then displays a piece of the antigen, bound to a Class II MHC protein, on the cell surface. This whole complex then binds to an activated helper T cell. This binding process stimulates the transformation of the B cell into an antibody-secreting plasma cell.

The 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.

What Is the Immune System and What Does It Do?

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 our 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 that are part of this defense system are white blood cells, or leukocytes (pronounced: loo-kuh-sytes). They come in two basic types (more on these below), which combine to seek out and destroy the organisms or substances that cause disease.

Leukocytes are produced or stored in many locations throughout the body, including the thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. For this reason, they are called the lymphoid (pronounced: lim-foyd) organs. There are also clumps of lymphoid tissue throughout the body, primarily in the form of lymph nodes, that house the leukocytes.

The leukocytes circulate through the body between the organs and nodes by means of the lymphatic (pronounced: lim-fah-tik) vessels. (You can think of the lymphatic vessels as a type of highway between the rest stops that are the lymphoid organs and lymph nodes). Leukocytes can also circulate through the blood vessels. In this way, the immune system works in a coordinated manner to monitor the body for substances that might cause problems.

There are two basic types of leukocytes:

  • the phagocytes (pronounced: fah-guh-sytes) are cells that chew up invading organisms.
  • The lymphocytes (pronounced: lim-fuh-sytes) are cells that allow the body to remember and recognize previous invaders.

There are a number of different cells that are considered phagocytes. The most common type is the neutrophil (pronounced: noo-truh-fil). Neutrophils primarily fight bacteria. So when doctors are worried about a bacterial infection, sometimes they 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.

There are two kinds of lymphocytes: the B lymphocytes and the 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 jobs to do: 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.

A foreign substance that invades the body is called an antigen (pronounced: an-tih-jun). When an antigen is detected, several types of cells work together to recognize and respond to it. These cells trigger the B lymphocytes to produce antibodies. Antibodies are specialized proteins that lock onto specific antigens. Antibodies and antigens fit together like a key and a lock

Once the B lymphocytes have produced antibodies, these antibodies continue to exist in a person's body. That means if the same antigen is presented to the immune system again, the antibodies are already there to do their job. That's why if someone gets sick with a certain disease, like chickenpox, that person typically doesn't get sick from it again. This is also why we use immunizations to prevent getting certain diseases. The immunization introduces the body to the antigen in a way that doesn't make a person sick, but it does allow the body to produce antibodies that will then protect that 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 is the job of the T cells. The T cells are part of the system that destroys antigens that have been tagged by antibodies or cells that have been infected or somehow changed. (There are actually T cells that are called “killer cells”). T cells are also involved in helping signal other cells (like phagocytes) to do their jobs.

Antibodies can also 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. 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 that humans have. 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 either.

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 our first line of defense in preventing diseases from entering the body. If this outer defensive wall is broken (like if you get a cut), the skin attempts to heal the break quickly and special immune cells on the skin attack invading germs.

Adaptive Immunity

We also have a second kind of protection called adaptive (or active) immunity. This type of immunity develops throughout our lives. Adaptive immunity involves the lymphocytes (as in the process described above) and develops as children and adults 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 an infant with temporary immunity to diseases that the mother has been exposed to. This can help protect the infant 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 a person gets older, he or she usually becomes 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 children - their bodies have learned to recognize and immediately attack many of the viruses that cause colds.

Things That Can Go Wrong With the Immune System

Disorders of the immune system can be broken down into four main categories:

  • 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

Immunodeficiency Disorders

Immunodeficiencies (pronounced: ih-myoon-o-dih-fih-shun-seez) occur when a part of the immune system is not present or is not working properly. Sometimes a person is born with an immunodeficiency - these are called primary immunodeficiencies. (Although primary immunodeficiencies are conditions that a person is born with, symptoms of the disorder sometimes may not show up until later in life.) Immunodeficiencies can also be acquired through infection or produced by drugs. These are sometimes called secondary immunodeficiencies.

Immunodeficiencies can affect B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes, or phagocytes. Some examples of primary immunodeficiencies that can affect kids and teens are:

IgA deficiency

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)

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)

DiGeorge syndrome (thymic dysplasia), a birth defect in which children 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

Chediak-Higashi syndrome and chronic granulomatous disease both involve the inability of the neutrophils to function normally as phagocytes.

Acquired immunodeficiencies

Acquired immunodeficiencies usually develop after a person 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. Some examples of secondary immunodeficiencies are:

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection/AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)

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 which 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

There are several medicines that 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. These medicines can also reduce the immune system's ability to fight infections and can cause secondary immunodeficiency.

Autoimmune Disorders

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


Lupus is a chronic disease marked by muscle and joint pain and inflammation. The abnormal immune response may also involve attacks on the kidneys and other organs.

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is a disease in which the body's [[glossary:immune system|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 is a chronic autoimmune disease that can lead to inflammation and damage of the skin, joints, and internal organs.

Ankylosing spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a disease that involves inflammation of the spine and joints, causing stiffness and pain.

Juvenile dermatomyositis

Juvenile dermatomyositis is a disorder marked by inflammation and damage of the skin and muscles.

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. Taking medications called antihistamines can relieve most symptoms. Some examples of allergic disorders:


Asthma, a respiratory disorder that can cause breathing problems, frequently involves an allergic response by the lungs. If the lungs are oversensitive to certain allergens (like pollen, molds, animal dander, or dust mites), it can trigger breathing tubes in the lungs to become narrowed leading to reduced airflow and making it hard for a person to breathe.


Eczema is a scaly, itchy rash also known as atopic dermatitis. Although atopic dermatitis is not necessarily caused by an allergic reaction, it more often occurs 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 occur in 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.

Cancers of the Immune System

Cancer occurs when cells grow out of control. This can also happen with the cells of the immune system. Lymphoma involves the lymphoid tissues and is one of the more common childhood cancers. Leukemia, which involves abnormal overgrowth of leukocytes, is the most common childhood cancer. 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 strong and fight illnesses by staying informed about your child's condition and working closely with your child's doctor.

Reviewed by: Barbara P. Homeier, MD, Wayne Ho, MD, and Steven Dowshen, MD Date reviewed: October 2004

Kid’s Health

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External Links

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Lymphatic system and immunity


What are some of the terms we need to know to understand immune function?


Organ: Immune system


Lymphatic System Problems

Dr. Mo Lerner


The Lymphatic System



Thoracic Duct


Lymph Nodes


Bone Marrow






Lymph Nodes, A Closer Look


Cell Mediated and Humoral Immunity

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