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Infection and immunity
Infection and immunity

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4.2  The immune response to infection

The human immune system is an extremely complex network of interacting cells and biological molecules. Our aim here is simply to give you an overview of how an immune response to infection develops, without going into too much detail. It occurs in three overlapping stages, the first of which is triggered when body cells are damaged.

When tissues are injured, the damaged cells release chemicals that trigger the sequence of events described as inflammation. It occurs in response to any type of injury, such as a blow or a cut, an insect bite, or damage caused by pathogens multiplying in body tissues. Inflammation has four characteristic effects at the site of an injury, the first two of which are visible around the splinter shown in Figure 2:

  • swelling
  • redness
  • heat
  • pain.
Figure 2  Inflammation of the tissues around a splinter.

The inflamed area shows these signs because the local blood vessels dilate (get wider), increasing blood flow into the injury site, so it looks red as well as feeling warmer than the surrounding tissue. The walls of the blood vessels near the injury become leaky, allowing fluid, defensive proteins and immune system cells (described shortly) to flood into the area, which becomes swollen as a result. One of the proteins released during the inflammatory response also makes the area more sensitive to painful stimuli, so inflamed tissue is sore to touch.

Sites of tissue injury are vulnerable to invasion by pathogens so the benefits of inflammation generally outweigh the discomfort it causes. Flooding the area with fluid dilutes any pathogens that are already present, and the local concentration of immune system cells and defensive proteins enables an immune response to begin more quickly.