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Understanding Immune System Disorders

Updated on March 12, 2011

Many immune system disorders that were less common in the past century have been on the rise over the course of the past 20-40 years. These immune system disorders include asthma, autism, HIV, AIDS, and many different types of autoimmune conditions. Some immune system disorders lead to a debilitated immune response that is unable to fight off many types of common illnesses caused by viruses and bacteria. Others lead to an overactive immune response that causes white blood cells to attack naturally-occurring cells and tissues. Scientists are not sure why there has been such a substantial increase in the number of disorders related to the immune system, but many believe that the rise could be due to increased stress levels, environmental factors, or increased reliance on pharmaceutical drugs.

None of these theories have been proven. In the meantime, there are millions of people being diagnosed with these types of conditions in industrialized nations around the world with few effective treatment options and no known cures. To understand immune system disorders, it is important to first  understand how the immune system works. The human immune system is made up of two parts. Its job is to fight off invaders such as bacteria and viruses. It is what prevents us from getting sick, and what helps us to get better when we are sick. 

The first part of the immune system is called B lymphocytes. These cells contain antibodies that will attack and remove any foreign substances. The other part is called T lymphocytes. These are the white blood cells that will attack any foreign substances directly. The T lymphocytes are the most important part of the immune system, and are valuable in preventing against illness. The T lymphocytes remember every threat you come into contact with and catalog it so that in the future, they can provide further protection from invasion. Vaccinations consist of a small amount of a particular virus or bacteria so that they can teach our T lymphocytes what to fight against.

Autoimmune diseases occur when these cells begin attacking tissues and organs that are not a real threat to the body. This happens because the immune system no longer recognizes its own cells. The immune system then starts to make antibodies to fight against its own tissues, cells and organs. Autoimmune disease can be either systemic or localized. Systemic means that it affects several organs of the body. Localized means that only one organ is affected. For example, psoriasis is a localized autoimmune disease because it only affects the skin. However, lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease because it affects several organs of the body.

Type I diabetes is also considered an autoimmune disease, and so is asthma. Asthma primarily affects the lungs, and the cause of symptoms is increased inflammation in the airways. However, people with some autoimmune diseases, like asthma, may also have decreased ability to fight off other types of infections. This can be confusing, and for many years, asthma was actually believed to be the result of immune deficiency. AIDS stands for auto immune deficiency syndrome, but the disease itself is not an autoimmune condition. In fact, in both HIV and AIDS, there is an immune deficiency. These types of conditions are considered to be the opposite of autoimmune diseases. While in autoimmune conditions, the immune system is overactive, in immune deficiency conditions, the immune system is not effective enough an fails to protect against even the most common invaders.

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