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What Is an Immunostimulant?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 25 October 2014
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An immunostimulant triggers increased immune activity. Some, such as vaccines, target particular proteins; these are termed specific immunostimulants. Others are nonspecific and work on the immune system as a whole or general systems within it to increase the immune response. The body produces a number of these compounds naturally and they are also produced in synthetic settings and by some natural organisms.

The immune system includes a complex network of systems that function together to protect the body from infectious agents. Immunostimulants can trigger the immune system to kick into action to respond to a threat. With vaccination, for example, the immune system learns to recognize specific proteins and attack them, thus ensuring that when a patient is exposed to an infectious agent, the immune system will act. Nonspecific immune stimulants can boost overall immune activity.

Vaccines are often given with a compound called an adjuvant. These act as immunostimulants, increasing the body’s response to the vaccine. In addition to increasing the chances that the vaccine will be effective, the immunostimulant also reduces the amount of material needed in a vaccine, which makes it safer for the patient.

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Within the body, a number of compounds can wax and wane to regulate immune function. Sometimes immunostimulant concentrations get too high and people experience autoimmune reactions. Their bodies start attacking themselves in the mistaken belief that cells contain harmful proteins. Certain hormones are believed to be linked with immunostimulant activity, explaining why people sometimes start to develop autoimmune disorders during puberty, as their hormone levels rise and change.

Patients can also take immunostimulant medication for specific purposes. Someone with an active infection might take medication to increase the body’s ability to fight it. Medical professionals balance the desire to attack the infectious agent with the need to avoid triggering autoimmune responses. Medications like interferon, a compound produced naturally in the body and synthetically in the lab, may help with treatment for some diseases where immune function is not enough on its own to resolve the infection.

Some herbal preparations and foods are said to boost immune health and may be recommended to people with colds and minor infections. Patients should approach these supplements with caution, as they could cause side effects and may not provide enough protection against disease. A care provider can offer advice on whether something is safe and likely to be helpful. It may be possible to utilize complementary therapy, where patients use herbal supplements as well as conventional medications to address an infection.

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