The Immune System: A Medical Assistant’s Guide

In the course of performing a medical assisting role, the medical assistant will need to become familiar with the immune system. The immune system is the part of the body that identifies and destroys microorganisms that have the potential to cause illness and disease. The body’s immune system produces antibodies to combat antigens, a foreign substance to the body. The medical assistant should be very familiar with the immune system and how it fights microorganisms that attack the body. The medical assistant should also be aware of many different diseases caused by the immune system. This will help the medical assistant identify issues that will help keep patients happy and healthy.

What is an Antigen?

Antigens are substances that are recognized as foreign to the body. When antigens are present they cause the body to produce antibodies.

What are Antibodies?

Antibodies are proteins produced by the body in response to a specific antigen. Each antibody combines with only one antigen.

What are Microorganisms?

A microorganism is the smallest and simplest form of a living being, that can only be seen under a microscope. Microorganisms can live in almost any condition however some have a preference for hot, cold, dry or wet conditions. Common microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.

Pathogenic Bacteria – one that causes disease in the host.

  • Staphylococcus – one of the most common causes of human disease. Staphylococcus can colonize the skin and mucous membrane and can cause superficial and systemic infections. The most common infections include boils, impetigo, folliculitis, pneumonia, bacteremia and infections of the bone and wounds.
  • Streptococcus – can cause strep throat which can lead to serious conditions like rheumatic fever of the heart valves and glomerulonephritis of the kidneys.
  • The Gram- Negative Bacilli – a normal bacteria found in the intestinal tract however can be serious and life-threatening if the bacteria gets out of the intestine during surgery.

Viruses – a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of another organism.

  • Bird Flu – a viral infection that spreads from bird to bird. H5N1 and can be deadly if caught by a human.
  • Chickenpox – a highly contagious viral infection causing an itchy, blister-like rash on the skin.
  • Common Cold – a common viral infection of the nose and throat.
  • Ebola Virus – causes severe bleeding, organ failure and can lead to death.
  • Influenza – a common viral infection that causes mild illness, vomiting and diarrhea.

Pathogenic Fungi – fungi that causes disease in humans

  • Candida – an overgrowth of organisms, caused by yeast in individuals with deficient immune system.
  • Aspergillus – infection from a common mold that causes allergic reactions, lung infections and infections of other organs.
  • Cryptococcus – a severe form of meningitis in patients with HIV infection and AIDS.
  • Histoplasma – infection of the lungs by inhaling contaminated air
  • Pneumocystis – can cause a form of pneumonia in humans with a weakened immune system.
  • Stachybotrys – also known as “black mold,”can cause respiratory damage and severe headaches

Parasites – an organism that lives in or on another organism and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense. Can inflame and destroy the intestinal lining of the gut.

  • Tapeworm – infection of the digestive tract of a species of parasitic flatworm.
  • Hookworm – sucks blood from the intestinal walls of human hosts.
  • Giardia – diarrheal disease caused by microscopic parasites.
  • Blood Flukes – parasitic flatworms that cause infections in humans called Schistosoma.
  • Pinworms – small, thin, pin-shaped worms that can live in the human colon and rectum.

What Are the Most Common Diseases Caused by the Immune System?

There are many different diseases that are commonly caused by the immune system. They include allergies, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, lymphedema, mononucleosis, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus.

Allergies – a substance that is usually not harmful, like pollen, causing the immune system to overact and produce antibodies.

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) – development of severe signs and symptoms caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as it destroys lymphocytes, leaving the immune system weaker.

Autoimmune Disease – occurs when the body can’t distinguish between its own antigens and outside antigens, causing the body to fight its own tissue.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) – a condition of sever tiredness that cannot be relieved by rest and not related to illness.

Lymphedema – blockage of the lymphatic vessels that drain excess fluids from areas of the body, which may be caused by a parasitic infection, or other medical condition.

Mononucleosis – also known as mono, a highly contagious viral infection spread through the saliva from kissing, coughing and sneezing.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – occurs when a patient’s cells attack the central nervous system.

Rheumatoid Arthritis – an autoimmune disease that causes gradual debilitating damage to joints.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) – also known as lupus, an autoimmune disorder that affects the organ systems of the body. The body creates antibodies that target the person’s own cells and tissue.

Did learning about the immune system interest you? Ready to become a medical assistant? Gwinnett Colleges & Institute offers medical assisting courses to gain essential skills and training. The core curriculum focuses on the medical assisting skills and training you will need to seek entry-level employment in physicians’ offices, clinics, hospitals, and other medical settings needing the services of associates trained in both front and back office medical assisting skills. These medical assisting courses will be the first step in starting a rewarding career.