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The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred great interest in antibodies and how antibodies work. Antibodies help us to fight off viruses and bacteria, and antibody-based medicines can be useful in treating infections and other diseases.

Germs are always vying to invade our bodies and make us sick. Luckily, your immune system can assemble an army to protect you. Think of this system as your team of superheroes, dedicated to keeping us safe and healthy.

To understand the immune system, we need to understand both antigens and antibodies. Antibodies are your body’s strongest defense mechanism.

Antibodies are also known as Immunoglobulins (Ig’s), these are a family of proteins. Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system to fight infections like viruses and may help to ward off future occurrences by those same infections. These antibodies locate and attack foreign invaders the body doesn’t recognize, known as antigens.

Antigens are foreign substances to the body. They can be living, like microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, or inactivated like in many vaccines.

When antigens are detected in the body, the immune response kicks in and it goes to work to defend the body against those antigens.

There are four main types of antibodies. Each has a different job.

IgM antibodies are made when the immune cells recognize an antigen. The first to go to the site of infection and offer protection. They don’t hang around long but instead, they trigger the body to make a new type: IgG antibodies.

IgG antibodies are the ones that circulate in the blood and continue to fight off the infection.

IgA antibodies are found in body fluids, such as saliva, sweat, and tears. These antibodies grab antigens to stop invaders before they cause illness.

IgE antibodies are stimulated by antigens or allergens and can act very quickly. They work by triggering the immune system to go into overdrive. They make your nose run or your skin itch when you have an allergic reaction.

When antibodies on the infection-fighting cells bind with antigens on the microorganism, the infection-fighting cells help kill the microorganism.

When an antibody protects your body against an antigen, it can do so in several different ways. It can bind to the cell using special prongs that fit into the antigen and cause the antigen cell to lysis or disintegrate and die. It can also block toxins from being released from an antigen or cause antigens to clump together and be easily detected by your body’s defenses.

Antibodies are specific to a single organism or group. Having antibodies against an antigen, from immunization or previous infection, allows the body to fend off that antigen when it is next encountered.

So how do antibodies work? 

The immune system uses memory cells to remember these antigens. Memory cells make antibodies and remember specific antigens. When they are activated, they set off a new cycle of antibody production. And they remember how they did it. This is called having immunity. 

There are two types of immunity.

Active immunity is protection produced by the person’s immune system. This type lasts for many years, often throughout a lifetime. Active immunity is acquired naturally or artificially.

– Natural immunity is long-lasting immunity that happens after being infected with a disease. After a person contracts a disease and recovers, the immune system leaves behind memory cells.

– Artificially acquired active immunity results after receiving a vaccine. The vaccine triggers the primary immune response leaving behind antibodies and memory cells for the second attack.

Passive immunity is protection by which immune cells are acquired somewhere other than one’s own body. Passive #immunity often provides protection, but this protection disappears with time, in a few weeks or months. This type of immunity can also be naturally or artificially acquired.

Naturally acquired passive immunity occurs in infants that receive antibodies from the mother through the placenta in utero and in the mother’s milk after birth.

Artificially acquired passive immunity occurs by injections of antibodies received from another person or animal. This method is often used to treat snake bites, spider bites, or tetany.

So what does this all have to do with COVID-19? 

There is a lot of recent talk about COVID-19 antibodies.

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Since it is a virus, we already know that means it is an antigen to your body. Remember that Antibodies are specific to a single organism or group. Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system in response to an infection and are specific to that particular infection.

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Jennifer Billings is the Medical Editor at Medicwell. She is an Integrated medical doctor who has been published on Medicwell Blog, Medium.com and is a regular contributor at MedCity News, Physician Family, and Psychology Today.