Antibodies

Antibodies are proteins made by the body's natural defense system (immune system) to attack and destroy foreign substances, such as bacteria and viruses. Antibodies attach themselves to the foreign substance, allowing other immune system cells to attack and destroy the substance.

The surfaces of viruses and bacteria contain chemicals called antigens. To destroy viruses and bacteria, the immune system creates antibodies that are specific for each antigen.

  • The first time a person is exposed to a type of bacteria or virus, the immune system makes antibodies to that specific bacteria or virus.
  • Some of these antibodies remain in the immune system after they have attacked and destroyed the bacteria or virus.
  • If a person is exposed to the bacteria or virus again, the immune system will “remember” the first exposure. It will quickly reactivate its antibodies and destroy the bacteria or virus again.
  • These antibodies often protect a person from becoming ill when exposed to the bacteria or virus again. This is called immunity.

Blood tests can detect antibodies to certain bacteria and viruses, such as the viruses that cause chickenpox, HIV infection, hepatitis, and mononucleosis. Some conditions can be diagnosed by detecting antibodies in a person's blood to the virus or bacteria that is causing the condition.

Sometimes the body responds to its own tissue as though the tissue was a foreign substance, creating antibodies against the tissue and triggering reactions that cause normal cells to be destroyed. This is called an autoimmune response or autoimmune disease.

Last Updated: June 12, 2008

Author: Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS

Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease

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