Did you get a flu shot? Is your tetanus shot up to date? Did you ever have chickenpox? If so, you might want to get vaccinated against shingles.
Vaccines are a common part of the modern medical arsenal to help keep us healthy. But you might be surprised to know that the earliest attempts at vaccination took place way back in the 1100s as doctors tried to find a way to protect children from smallpox.
Vaccination has come a long way since then, with strict standards to ensure the safety and purity of vaccines. But the basic theory behind vaccinations remains the same — safely convincing your body that it had a disease to make sure it can defend itself when the real thing comes along.
How the Immune System Works
The human immune system acts like a trained army to recognizes foreign or dangerous microbes, isolate them from healthy cells, and then destroy them before they can do more damage.
Each foreign microbe that can make you sick has a special pattern of molecules on its surface that can be recognized by the body’s immune system. To simplify this idea, you might think of microbes like a child’s ball covered with bumps.
One kind of microbe might have square bumps, another pyramid triangles, and another a combination of ovals and rectangles. The exact pattern for a particular kind of microbe is known as its antigen.
When your immune system encounters a new microbe, it has to figure out how to create a pattern that matches the antigen. The matching cell is called an antibody.
When an antibody finds the microbe it matches, it can lock onto the microbe and block the microbe from spreading. It also produces new cells that create many more matching antibodies to track down and block all the other matching microbes in your body to stop the infection.
The first time your body is attacked by a particular microbe, it doesn’t have a matching pattern of antibodies ready to fight back. This means the infection has more time to spread and make you sick.
Once the body creates an antibody to fight a particular disease, it saves a memory of the antigen pattern.