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Allergies: When the Immune System Backfires

What do allergies reveal about our immune system's capabilities? Learn more about allergy symptoms and treatments on this course.

8,625 enrolled on this course

Illustration showing a flourishing birch tree and grass pollen on the left, and cells of the immune system on the right. In the background is a sneezing woman.
  • Duration

    3 weeks
  • Weekly study

    4 hours

Discover how different allergies are understood, diagnosed, and treated today.

The human immune system is designed to fight infection, but sometimes this defence mechanism provokes allergic disorders. In this course, you will explore the similarities and differences of infections and allergies, and understand the intricacies of the immune system.

You will address the events, mishaps, and discoveries that have led to a common understanding of allergies today. You will explore different types of allergies, like food allergies and hayfever, as well as allergy symptoms, methods of diagnosis, and different allergy treatments with the support of case studies.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 11 seconds Throughout history, epidemics have left their mark in civilization. Black death, syphilis, smallpox, or tuberculosis. Most of them are severe, often deadly infections. The development of vaccinations and remedies against the eliciting culprits led to a growing understanding of our immune system. Today, however, according to some pundits, we are faced with an epidemic of allergies. They are very common, but rarely lethal. What are the differences between infections and allergies? What do they share? To answer these questions, this course does not only explore the immune system, but also addresses some of the events, mishaps, and discoveries that led to our understanding of allergies today. What provokes an allergy? What types of allergic reactions do we distinguish?

Skip to 1 minute and 31 seconds And what are the underlying mechanisms according to our modern understanding of the immune system? What are the typical clinical manifestations of each type? And how do we best recognised and treat these?

Skip to 1 minute and 53 seconds If you are interested in these questions, the course “Allergies - When the Immune System Backfires” is for you. We look forward to welcoming you to it.


  • Week 1

    Allergy: the history of a misunderstanding

    • A tragedy of errors

      In this activity you will get to know Andreas J. Bircher. You will learn how this course works and be given a basic introduction into the topic and the history of allergies and infections.

    • Discovering the allergy

      How were allergies discovered? Learn more about how vaccinations were developed, and how – by accident – more knowledge about allergies was revealed in the past, and get to know essential concepts needed to understand allergies.

    • Mapping the immune system

      Gain insights into the immune system, the network that lies behind it, and the components that interact. Learn also more about what happens if this system malfunctions – and what consequences it could bring about.

    • Touring the castle

      Metaphors are a popular instrument to explain difficult concepts. The immune system is often compared to a castle, protecting its inhabitants from the outside. Andreas J. Bircher takes you on a tour and explains the similarities.

    • A first case study

      After having explored the immune defence, let us now turn to a concrete case of an allergic reaction. Meet Jenny, the sportive 22 year student who develops an allergic reaction after she goes jogging. Discuss her case.

  • Week 2

    Immediate type mechanism: clinical allergic disorders

    • What are atopic disorders? What happens in immediate allergies?

      In this activity Andreas J. Bircher introduces you to the classification of allergies. Learn also how allergies can be transferred from one organism to another and what mechanisms and symptoms are associated with a type I allergy.

    • Knowing clinical immediate (type) allergy

      After being introduced to type I allergies, their mechanisms, and symptoms, in this activity you will learn more about allergies that most of us have come across directly or indirectly in everyday life.

    • Diagnosis and therapy of immediate type allergic disorders

      In this activity you will learn how type I allergic reactions are diagnosed, what possible therapeutic approaches there are, and what emergency medication in case of a severe anaphylactic reaction exists.

  • Week 3

    Eczemas and drug hypersensitivity

    • Contact dermatitis and eczema

      This activity uses a case study to introduce contact dermatitis and eczema. Explore, how they were discovered, recognise symptoms, mechanisms and responsible allergens. Find out, how contact dermatitis and eczema are diagnosed.

    • What is a drug allergy?

      Drug allergies are complex. Analyze its mechanisms and manifestations, investigate a case study, explore the effect of pain medication and discover, why it is sometimes difficult to detect drug hypersensitivities.

    • Reviewing the course

      In the final activity you are invited to appraise what you have learned. Take a quiz, give us feedback to our course and watch the lead educator stating, how he enjoyed the course.

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore the basic functioning and role of the immune system in health and allergic disease.
  • Investigate the components that make up the immune system and how they interact in an allergic reaction.
  • Develop knowledge on how to recognize manifestations, signs and symptoms of allergic disorders.
  • Identify different allergic disorders and learn how to apply diagnostic tools and consider treatments.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for healthcare professionals or students studying health sciences. It will also be of interest to the general public looking to gain insights into the immune system and allergies.

Who will you learn with?

Head of Allergology 1991 - 2018
University Hospital Basel
Professor emeritus for Allergology
University of Basel, Switzerland
Adjunct Professor
Faculty of biomedical sciences
USI Lugano, Switzerland

Who developed the course?

University of Basel

The University of Basel has an international reputation of outstanding achievements in research and teaching.

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

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