Allergists and immunologists are concerned with the study, diagnosis, and treatment of disorders related to immunity (the body's ability to resist disease or threatening substances). The body's immune system fights against the intrusion of outside forces, whether they are irritating substances that cause allergic reactions or microorganisms that cause infection. This is the system that helps us fight off illness every single day of our lives. Modern immunologic research indicates that many infections can be as much a result of defects in a person's immune system as they are a result of exposure to viruses or bacteria.
Immunologists are also studying the role of the immune system in cancer growth. It may someday be possible to prevent cancer by modifying the immune system to reject cancerous growths in the body.
Immunologists are also interested in the opposite effect of the immune system -- the rejection of foreign substances that are actually beneficial (the most obvious example is an organ transplant). Immunologists are also seeking ways to make the immune system work selectively, so that the body would reject cancer cells but accept a new heart, kidney, or liver.
The best-known branch of immunology deals with allergies, which are responses of the body's immune system to irritating substances in the environment. Doctors who practice as allergists are involved in identifying environmental irritants that cause symptoms and in formulating a plan of treatment. Allergists may treat allergies by suggesting environmental modifications to eliminate the offending substance or by using drugs to relieve the symptoms.
Another option is a program of desensitization, which involves injecting minute amounts of the offending agent into the patient's body to make the immune system less sensitive to it. Once such a program has been set up, your family doctor can often give the injections. Allergists also consult in the management of certain diseases, such as asthma.
An immunologist must complete a residency in internal medicine or pediatrics after graduating from medical school. This residency is followed by a two-year fellowship program in allergy and immunology. Specialty board examinations are also required.
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