A woman is riding an elevator when her fellow passengers start to sneeze. As she wonders what sort of sickness the other riders might be spreading, her immune system swings into action. If the bug being dispersed by the contagious sneezers is one the woman has met before, a battalion of trained immune cells--the foot soldiers of the so-called adaptive immune system--will remember the specific invader and clear it within hours. She might never realize she had been infected.
But if the virus or bacterium is one that our hapless rider has never wrestled, a different sort of immune response comes to the rescue. This "innate" immune system recognizes generic classes of molecules produced by a variety of disease-causing agents, or pathogens. When such foreign molecules are detected, the innate system triggers an inflammatory response, in which certain cells of the immune system attempt to wall off the invader and halt its spread. The activity of these cells--and of the chemicals they secrete--precipitates the redness and swelling at sites of injury and accounts for the fever, body aches and other flulike symptoms that accompany many infections.
This article was originally published with the title Immunity's Early-Warning System.