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 your body. These first lines are general defences, and are not specific to fight against certain types of pathogen. We call them non-specific defence systems, and they can be physical or chemical barriers to pathogen entry.


The skin covers almost all parts of your 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 enzymes are chemical barriers.

Diagram of a cross section of hair and below the surface of the skinCross-section of skin


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 and any pathogens are trapped within it.

Trachea and bronchi

A picture of a group cilia within the nose

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 in a motion like a Mexican wave at a football match and move mucus and pathogens upwards towards the throat where it is swallowed into your stomach. Other cells called goblet cells create the mucus in order to trap pathogens. The production of mucus in your airways is a physical barrier.


Stomach acid does not break down food. It is part of the body’s non-specific first line of defence. Stomach acid 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.