What Exactly Is “The Immune System”?

By The Nemours Foundation and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, March 28, 2014

The immune system is the umbrella term for an extremely complex process which involves specialized cells, several major organs and a complicated set of biological procedures designed to rid us of toxins, waste, and to defend us from microscopic biological threats.

Below are definitions from two different health resources: KidsHealth.org, which is a part of The Nemours Foundation; a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the health of children, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is a associated with the National Institute of Health. Both of these organizations have extensive online information and are worth exploring.

Here’s a definition of the immune system written for parents from KidsHealth.org:

The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend the body against attacks by “foreign” invaders. These are primarily microbes— tiny organisms such as bacteria, parasites, and fungi that can cause infections. Viruses also cause infections, but are too primitive to be classified as living organisms. The human body provides an ideal environment for many microbes. It is the immune system’s job to keep them out or, failing that, to seek out and destroy them.”

Building on that, here’s another definition from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:

The immune system can distinguish between normal, healthy cells and unhealthy cells by recognizing a variety of "danger" cues called danger- associated molecular patterns (DAMPs). Cells may be unhealthy because of infection or because of cellular damage caused by non-infectious agents like sunburn or cancer. Infectious microbes such as viruses and bacteria release another set of signals recognized by the immune system called pathogen- associated molecular patterns (PAMPs).”

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