Cells, cell products, organs, and structures of the body involved in the detection and destruction of foreign invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. Immunity is based on the system's ability to launch a defense against such invaders. For the system to function properly, it must be able to distinguish between the material of its own body (self) and material that originates outside of it (nonself). Failure to make this distinction can result in autoimmune diseases. An exaggerated or inappropriate response by the immune system to nonharmful substances (e.g., pollen, animal dander) can result in allergies. The system's principal cells include lymphocytes that recognize antigens and related accessory cells (such as phagocytic macrophages, which engulf and destroy foreign material). Lymphocytes arise in the bone marrow from stem cells, with T lymphocytes (T cells) migrating to the thymus to mature and B lymphocytes (B cells) maturing in the bone marrow. Mature lymphocytes enter the bloodstream, and many become lodged, along with accessory cells, in various body tissues, including the spleen, lymph nodes, tonsils, and intestinal lining. Organs or tissues containing such concentrations are termed lymphoid. Within these organs and tissues the lymphocytes are confined within a delicate network of connective tissue that channels them so they come into contact with antigens. T cells and B cells can mature and multiply further in lymphoid tissue when suitably stimulated. Fluid (lymph) draining from lymphoid tissues is conveyed to the blood through lymphatic vessels. Lymph nodes distributed along these vessels filter the lymph, exposing macrophages and lymphocytes contained within to any antigen present. The spleen plays a similar role, sampling the blood for the presence of antigens. The capability of lymphocytes to pass between lymphoid tissue, the blood, and lymph is an important element in the system's functioning. Seealso immunodeficiency; immunology.
Learn more about immune system with a free trial on Britannica.com.