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2023-06-28 21:41:57

What are Antibodies? The Almighty Protein

Whenever you experience an allergic reaction, it’s actually your body trying to protect you. When you’re sick, your immune system kicks into high gear to fight whatever has invaded your body. This can all happen thanks to antibodies. Maybe you’ve heard the term before, but what are antibodies, exactly? What do they do for you, and how do they affect illness and allergies?

What are Antibodies?

Let’s keep this simple: Antibodies are proteins. Your immune system creates antibodies whenever your body detects a foreign substance (called an antigen) as a threat — like a virus, bacteria, or toxin. These proteins work to remove that threat from your body.

More specifically, B cells — which are a special type of white blood cell — produce antibodies. Any time an antigen encounters a B cell, the cell divides and clones itself, becoming plasma cells. These plasma cells are what release millions of antibodies into your body.

Let’s go through an example! Say you catch strep throat. It hurts to swallow, your throat is red and irritated, and your tonsils are swollen. About one week after you’ve become infected, antibodies will begin to increase. The number of antibodies can continue to climb for several weeks before they decrease again.

Where Do Antibodies Exist?

Antibodies exist all throughout the body, including your lungs, tears, saliva, and skin. There are technically five types of antibodies named based on where in your body they’re located:

The Tricky Part About Antibodies

Antibodies are here to protect you, but sometimes they kick into gear when there’s not even a problem. This is why you experience allergies! An allergic reaction can happen when you encounter a substance that’s actually harmless — like pollen — and your body doesn’t recognize it. So, your immune system overreacts and produces antibodies anyway. This is why you might experience itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose.

woman with allergies wiping her nose

How Can We Tell Our Immune Systems to Relax?

What if, every time you eat dairy, you break out in hives? And what if you can’t bear to part ways with your beloved cheese? (We feel you.) Can you “teach” your body to understand that cheddar is no threat?

Well, maybe, but maybe not. Children specifically can outgrow milk and egg allergies. In fact, 60% to 80% will outgrow them. Other allergies — for example, to shellfish — are different and less likely to go away.

Your allergies might be happening because your body didn’t learn to build up resistance to and properly digest that food. So, you could potentially incorporate more of it into your diet, slowly and over time, and your body could learn to tolerate it better.

If you’re experiencing a food allergy or food sensitivity but you’re not sure what’s causing it, consider a basic food sensitivity test or comprehensive food sensitivity test to zero in on the allergen.

Antibodies Can Help Determine Immunity

In addition to the fact that they help fight illness, there’s another reason why antibodies are so neat. They can tell you if you’re already immune to an illness. Blood titer tests screen for the presence and amount of antibodies in your system. Depending on the results, you may or may not already have immunity against that disease.

“Okay… and?” you might be asking. Well, this comes in handy if you’re not sure what you currently need to be vaccinated for. For example, maybe you suspect you might need the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine but you’re not positive. A titer test will look for those specific antibodies. If you have them (and have the right amount of them), then you either already got the vaccine or you were infected with MMR, your body already produced those antibodies, and you’re immune. Pretty cool, huh?

How Long Do Antibodies Last?

That depends on the illness you’re experiencing. While science hasn’t come to a unanimous conclusion, they’ve found that COVID-19 antibodies can last anywhere from a few months to just over a year. Meanwhile, the antibodies for the flu will stay in your body for about six months. On the other hand, if you get the MMR vaccine series, you’re protected for life.

For vaccines that don’t offer permanent protection, you would need to get a booster shot. You also need repeated doses of that vaccine because viruses can mutate over time. For instance, the 2023 flu strain will look slightly different from the 2022 flu strain. Therefore, 2022’s vaccine might not be as effective. So, you have to get the current vaccine to decrease your likelihood of becoming seriously ill.

doctor giving her patient a vaccine

Is it Better to Get Antibodies Naturally or from Vaccines?

This is a very important question. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the anti-vax community was strong. Many people argued we should let the virus “run its course.” In other words, they were advocating for letting people get sick and help build up our herd immunity — who needs vaccines?!

Everybody does. There are two problems with this line of thinking:

We can avoid this with vaccines, which can still work us toward herd immunity and it is the safest means to do so. Thanks to the field of medicine, people don’t have to get sick in order to develop the antibodies that’ll ultimately protect them.

You might not see them or feel them, but antibodies are there, working hard to keep you healthy and safe!