Between 1900 and 1999, ongoing important health improvements gave the average person in the United States a lifespan increase of more than three decades. Experts attribute 25 of these additional years of life to 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
At the very top of that list? Vaccinations.
Vaccines train your immune system to deliver a robust, targeted reaction against dangerous invading pathogens that can wreak havoc on your body and undermine your health. Vaccines prevent infection, stop the spread of disease, and save lives.
At American River Urgent Care in Orangevale, California, our expert team of family medicine and urgent care providers offer a full scope of vaccination services for patients of all ages in the Sacramento County area. Here, we answer one of the most common questions we get about immunization: How do vaccinations work?
Understanding your immune response
Your body is designed to protect you from pathogens or disease-causing microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. If a pathogen pushes past your physical barriers (skin, mucus) and enters your body, your immune system springs into action.
Pathogens have antigens
Each pathogen that enters your body consists of several subparts that are unique to that pathogen and the disease it causes. One of those subparts is a cell-attacking, disease-causing component called an antigen.
Your antibody response
When your immune system registers the presence of foreign antigens, it responds by producing antibodies. These vital immune system cells know how to spot and destroy harmful disease antigens.
Antibodies are specialized
Your immune system produces thousands of different antibodies, and each one is trained to recognize and destroy one specific antigen. You can think of each antibody as a key designed to fit just one antigen lock.
Immune system memory
If your body has been exposed to that antigen before, it produces its army of antibodies much faster. Once produced, these antibodies work with the rest of your immune system to destroy the pathogen and stop the disease.
Immune system training
But when your body is exposed to an antigen for the first time, your antibody response isn’t as strong — your immune system needs time to figure out how to produce antibodies specific to that antigen. In the meantime, you’re more likely to become ill.
How vaccines enhance your immunity
When your immune system produces antibodies in its primary response to a specific antigen, it creates antibody-producing memory cells at the same time. These memory cells remain in your body and are ready to respond long after defeating a pathogen.
If your body is invaded by the same disease-causing pathogen again, your immune system response is swifter and more effective because of its antibody memory cells, which effectively enable immediate immune system response to known antigens, protecting against disease.
This immune system mechanism is precisely what vaccination aims to enhance.
A vaccine imitates a specific infection to trigger a correlating immune system response — along with the production of specialized antibodies and their corresponding memory cells. How? By introducing the harmless antigen material of specific disease-causing microorganisms into your body. A vaccine may contain:
- Weakened or inactivated (dead) viral or bacterial antigens
- Bits of a pathogen’s exterior surface or genetic material (antigen blueprint)
- Antigens from a bacterial toxin that’s been treated so it’s non-toxic
Regardless of whether a vaccine contains a live, weakened antigen or the antigen’s genetic blueprint, this antibody-stimulating material can’t cause disease in the person who receives it. Still, the material presence is sufficient to elicit the same immune system response you’d experience if you had contracted the pathogen.
As your immune system produces antibodies and memory cells in response to a vaccine, your body becomes more well-equipped to deal effectively with that pathogen in a live situation. This means that if you’re exposed to the pathogen, you’re much less likely to get sick — and if the pathogen’s antigens do cause illness, it’s far more likely to be mild and brief.
Enduring protection or a seasonal boost
Many vaccinations require multiple doses, given weeks, months, or years apart, to help your immune system create enduring antibodies and memory cells. The hepatitis B vaccine works this way: The first dose is given at birth, the second dose is administered when an infant is one to two months old, and the third and final dose is provided between six and 15 months of age.
On the other hand, a yearly flu vaccine targets the specific influenza viruses that are predicted to be circulating in the coming flu season. This annual shot is designed to give your immune system a strong seasonal boost.
Are you caught up on immunizations?
Need your seasonal flu shot? Due for a tetanus booster? American River Urgent Care can help. Stop by our walk-in clinic in Orangevale, California, today — we’re open from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every weekday and from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on weekends. You can also call our office or click online to book an appointment at your convenience anytime.