Decoding Your Immune System
Cosmopolitan India|March 2021
It’s not the sexiest subject, but it is vital to our health and well-being. So it is time to get to know the body’s bouncers (oh, alright, the cells, organs, and organ systems) whose job it is to protect us from threats.
Meghan Rabbitt
What Even is the Immune System?

In short, it is there to protect you from infection— something that’s become increasingly important in the last year. “The immune system isn’t just one thing,” explains UK-based Dr Jenna Macciochi, immunologist and author of Immunity: The Science Of Staying Well. “It’s more like a collection of various components that work together.” That includes organs like the skin, the lymph nodes, and bone marrow, as well as cells, molecules, and tissues. Essentially, it is everywhere. “You’ll find immune cells in every part of the body, be that the brain, the gut, the blood, or the skin—but they cluster in the places where you’re more likely to find germs,” adds Dr Jenna. These places include the airways which might be exposed to respiratory germs, and the gut, which contains around 70% of the immune system and might be exposed to germs via food and drink.

How Does It Work?

“The first line of defence is the innate immune system,” says Dr Jenna. “If the cells that line these areas [previously mentioned] detect a pattern of germs that’s common to viruses or parasites, they activate a non-specific inflammation to try and make a hostile environment to stop the germ from taking hold.” Think: heat, pain, redness, and swelling. If this isn’t enough to clear the infection after a few days, your body shifts gear to something called the adoptive immune response. “This response is made up of white blood cells, and is unique to that infection. The cells clone themselves to produce an ‘army’ of these specific cells before leaving a small population of ‘memory cells’ that stay in your body to produce a fast response if you were to encounter the same virus again.” For some viruses, like chickenpox, these memory cells protect you for life. Currently, estimations for COVID-19 are that immunity could last as little as three months. But this could change as we learn more.

Why Might One Person Get Ill While Someone Else Is Fine?

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