When antigens (foreign substances that invade the body) are detected, several types of cells work together to recognize them and respond. These cells trigger the B lymphocytes to produce antibodies, which are specialized proteins that lock onto specific antigens.
Once produced, these antibodies stay in a person’s body, so that if his or her immune system encounters that antigen again, the antibodies are already there to do their job. So if someone gets sick with a certain disease, like chickenpox, that person usually won’t get sick from it again.
This is also how immunizations prevent certain diseases. An immunization introduces the body to an antigen in a way that doesn’t make someone sick, but does allow the body to produce antibodies that will then protect the person from future attack by the germ or substance that produces that particular disease.
Although antibodies can recognize an antigen and lock onto it, they are not capable of destroying it without help. That’s the job of the T cells, which are part of the system that destroys antigens that have been tagged by antibodies or cells that have been infected or somehow changed. (Some T cells are actually called “killer cells.”) T cells also are involved in helping signal other cells (like phagocytes) to do their jobs.
Antibodies also can neutralize toxins (poisonous or damaging substances) produced by different organisms. Lastly, antibodies can activate a group of proteins called complement that are also part of the immune system. Complement assists in killing bacteria, viruses, or infected cells.
All of these specialized cells and parts of the immune system offer the body protection against disease. This protection is called immunity.