Release the Hounds… On Pathogens!

A Very, Very Brief Guide to Your Immune System

How the Immune System Works.
© Maki Naro

Your immune system is huge, complex, well-oiled, mess. It contains almost 2 dozen cells across a handful of organs, all working in concert to keep you safe from the billions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi out there. So when I drew a comic about vaccines for the Nib, I found myself in a bit of trouble. I wanted to start by explaining how your body fights off pathogens, as vaccines are a safe way of training your body, without actually exposing it to the nasty stuff you’re trying to protect yourself against. So I sat down and started writing.

It did not go well.

It’s nearly impossible to be both thorough and concise when it comes to such a complex system. I say nearly, because some people have done a pretty damn good job. But I am not one of those people. I managed to get my explanation of the immune system down to a page and a half, but we decided to cut it anyway. I took that cut page, and decided to post it here for you all, as a standalone, ridiculously simplified guide to your immune system.

One of the problems of such a complicated orchestra of cells, proteins, and fluids, is that it’s easy to get it all wrong. Walk down a pharmacy aisle, and you’ll find countless products that claim to “boost your immune system.” Heck, just about everything apparently boosts your immune system. Because honestly, how can you tell? Humans are terrible wrapping their heads around probability, but they are awesome at taking two possibly unrelated events (Like taking a pill and not getting sick all winter) and connecting them.

To put it bluntly, you cannot “boost” your immune system. Nor do you really want to. One of the first science comics I drew explained the importance of not having too rambunctious of an immune system. And more recently, this piece on Slate does a good job of explaining why you don’t want your immune system to go Hulkamania on your body.

Earlier in the piece I mentioned that some people have done an amazing job at explaining the immune system. I’d like to leave you with a video by one such group. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQGOcOUBi6s//?