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Medical Interpreting: The Immune System

Every bodily system is an integral part of the whole, metaphorically and physically. When you can see the bodily systems in a holistic way, you can anticipate medical vocabulary the doctor might use. This is useful for both pre-study and for lowering the register during assignments.

The below modules correspond to each bodily system.

  • Respiratory System
  • Muscular System
  • Skeletal System
  • Circulatory System
  • Gastrointestinal System
  • Integumentary System
  • Nervous System
  • Immune System
  • Most Common Scans


In this installment of our Medical Interpreting series, we’ll discuss the immune system and how it works. The immune system is certainly integral but also arguably different from other systems. While the skeletal or circulatory system include easily identifiable components, the immune system is so much more. The immune system is everywhere. It combines all of the systems in an incredible dance to keep us healthy and safe.


The Immune System: An Overview

The immune system is the vast, complex, beautiful, and frankly magical collection of structures and processes that protect us from disease. It works with every other system of the body to keep us healthy. To function properly, the immune system must be able to distinguish between pathogens and healthy tissue. “Pathogen” is a broad term for anything that can cause disease, such as viruses and parasitic worms. As pathogens have the ability to rapidly evolve, the immune system’s defense mechanisms must also constantly learn and evolve. The study of the immune system and its components is called Immunology.

How The Immune System Fights Disease

The immune system fights disease in a process known as the “immune response.” For this example, let’s cover one of the most common forms of immune response processes: fighting a bacterial infection.

  1. Injury: You’re walking outside and you trip and fall, cutting yourself on something sharp. Ow! Your body’s first form of protection, your skin, has been breached. Nearby bacteria enter the wound.
  2. Bacteria Grow: The bacteria use the body’s resources to grow and reproduce. At first, the body doesn’t notice them. However, as their numbers continue to swell, the bacteria start to change the environment around them, causing damage.
  3. Macrophages Intervene: The macrophages (guard cells) intervene. Each macrophage can ingest up to 100 intruder cells each. Once ingested, the intruder cells are trapped in a membrane, broken down by enzymes, and killed. This is often enough to suffocate an attack. The macrophages also send messenger proteins throughout the body to cause inflammation. This is extra water release into the area to make fighting easier. If the macrophages are unable to handle the infection themselves, they release messenger proteins. The messenger proteins communicate the urgency and location of the infection.
  4. Neutrophils Arrive: Neutrophils arrive and generate barriers that trap and kill bacteria. To kill the bacteria, they release toxins that also cause peripheral damage to healthy cells. Neutrophils are so toxic that they’re designed to die after five days. This reduces the damage they do to healthy cells while also killing bacteria.
  5. Dendritic Cells Activate: If the macrophages and neutrophils aren’t enough, the macrophages send chemical messages to the dendritic cells. The dendritic cells activate and start collecting signals from the invaders. They rip the signals apart and present them on the cell membrane like trophies from battle. The dendritic cells make a vital decision: Should they call for anti-virus forces or bacteria killers? In this case, the antibacterial army is necessary.
  6. T-Cells Enlist: The dendritic cells travel to the nearest lymph node (it usually takes about a day) and enlist the help of t-cells. T-cells (a specially trained lymphocyte) have distinct configurations. The dendritic cells look for T-cells with the configuration they need to fight the infection. They determine this by seeing which T-cells react properly with the invader signals the dendritic cell membranes present.
  7. T-Cells Duplicate: When the dendrite locates the right T-cell, the T-cell duplicates thousands of times. Some become memory cells for if this infection returns. Some travel to the site of the infection to help out. Finally, some travel to the center of the lymph node to activate the B-cells.
  8. B-Cells Duplicate: When B-cells meet T-cells with the same configuration, the B-cells start rapidly duplicating and producing antibodies to fight the infection. The T-cells stimulate the B-cells for as long as the infection is still present. Then they stop, allowing the B-cells to die from exhaustion so no bodily resources or energy is wasted.
  9. Antibodies Arrive: The antibodies produced by the B-cells travel to the infection site and bind to the surface of the intruder cells. They stun the remaining bacteria and render them helpless or dead. Helpless bacteria are an easy target for the macrophages. The macrophages can more easily consume the intruder cells after the antibodies have attached.
    10. Infection is Wiped Out!. The infection is wiped out! The healthy body cells that have died as collateral damage are quickly replenished. Most of the immune cells involved in the battle now die to avoid using unnecessary bodily resources. However, the memory cells stay behind. if this type of bacteria is encountered again, the body will be able to handle it quickly and effectively.

Immune System Diseases and Disorders

You’ll encounter a number of common immune diseases and disorders as a medical interpreter. As we mentioned in the overview, the study of the immune system is immunology. You’ll generally work with patients through the diagnosis process. This starts with a general practitioner visit and then escalates to an immunologist if necessary. Here are some of the most common immune system disorders and diseases:

  • Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID): SCID is a condition present at birth that causes the immune system to either be inactive or have limited function. Children with SCID are missing crucial white blood cells. They have to be quarantined to protect them from diseases and infections.
  • Temporary Acquired Immunodeficiencies: Temporary acquired immunodeficiencies happen when the immune system is weakened by a variety of possible factors. These include certain medicines, flu, mononucleosis, organ transplants, smoking, alcohol, and poor nutrition. The immune system typically recovers with rest and medical supervision.
  • AIDS: HIV, the cause of AIDS, is a viral infection that destroys white blood cells and weakens the immune system. People with HIV/AIDS become extremely ill from sicknesses that healthy immune systems can fight off. These infections are called “opportunistic infections.”
  • Asthma: Asthma is the result of an overactive immune system triggered by pollutants and allergens in the lungs.
  • Atopic dermatitis: Atopic dermatitis, a form of eczema, is the result of an overactive immune system. The system attempts to attack allergens and instead damages healthy cells and causes inflammation.
  • Type 1 Diabetes: Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Insulin is the hormone that removes sugar from the blood to use as energy.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis is a common autoimmune disorder that causes joint swelling and deformity. It happens when the immune system attacks the cells in and around the joints.
  • Lupus: Lupus is another autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells in various parts of the body. This happens most commonly in the lungs, kidney, and skin.

Global Arena’s eLearning Course: Medical Terminology for Interpreters

Are you beginning a career as a medical interpreter and unsure of where to start? Would you like to enhance your existing knowledge and apply it to current jobs? Global Arena’s eLearning course, Medical Terminology for Interpreters is an excellent resource. The course is three hours long: 3 CEUs that apply to the prerequisites for all nationally recognized interpreting exams. It’s fully online and requires no downloads. The course includes a mix of interactive, lecture, and review slides to broadly engage participants and encourage retention. Upon successful completion, you’ll receive a certificate. Registration includes lifetime access to updates and resources, including our medical glossary. Click the link to learn more and sign up today!

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