Non-specific human defence systems against disease

The body is constantly defending against attacks from pathogens. The first line of defence against infection stops the pathogens from entering the body. These first lines are general defences and are not specific to fight against certain types of pathogen.

We call these defences non-specific, and they can be physical or chemical barriers.

Skin

The skin covers almost all parts of the body to prevent infection from pathogens. If it is cut or grazed it immediately begins to heal itself, often by forming a scab, which prevents infection as the skin acts as a physical barrier. Parts of the body that do not have skin have developed other ways to prevent infection. For example, the eyes produce tears, which contain enzymes. These destroy pathogens and are chemical barriers.

A cross-section of human skin.
Cross-section of skin

Nose

The nose has internal hairs which act as a physical barrier to infection. Cells in the nose produce mucus. This traps pathogens before they can enter the lungs. When the nose is blown mucus is removed with any pathogens trapped within it.

Trachea and bronchi

The trachea runs from the nose towards the lungs. The cells that line the trachea also have hairs called cilia, which are much smaller than those in the nose. These are called ciliated cells. The ciliated cells waft their hairs and move mucus and pathogens upwards towards the throat where it is swallowed into your stomach. Other cells called goblet cells create the mucus to trap pathogens. The production of mucus in your airways is a physical barrier.

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Stomach

Stomach acid does not break down food. It is part of the body's non-specific first line of defence. It is hydrochloric acid and while it does us no harm, it is strong enough to kill any pathogens that have been caught in mucus in the airways or consumed in food or water. Stomach acid is a chemical barrier against infection.

Platelets

When skin is wounded, platelets in the blood are able to:

  • release chemicals that cause soluble proteins to form a mesh of insoluble fibres across the wound
  • stick together to form clumps that get stuck in the mesh

Red blood cells also get stuck in the mesh, forming a clot. This develops into a scab, which prevents the entry of invading microorganisms into the wound.