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External and Chemical Barriers

18 November, 2015 - 15:52

The body has significant physical barriers to potential pathogens. The skin contains the protein keratin, which resists physical entry into cells. Other body surfaces, particularly those associated with body openings, are protected by the mucous membranes. The sticky mucus provides a physical trap for pathogens, preventing their movement deeper into the body. The openings of the body, such as the nose and ears, are protected by hairs that catch pathogens, and the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract have cilia that constantly move pathogens trapped in the mucus coat up to the mouth.

The skin and mucous membranes also create a chemical environment that is hostile to many microorganisms. The surface of the skin is acidic, which prevents bacterial growth. Saliva, mucus, and the tears of the eye contain an enzyme that breaks down bacterial cell walls. The stomach secretions create a highly acidic environment, which kills many pathogens entering the digestive system.

Finally, the surface of the body and the lower digestive system have a community of microorganisms such as bacteria, archaea, and fungi that coexist without harming the body. There is evidence that these organisms are highly beneficial to their host, combating disease-causing organisms and outcompeting them for nutritional resources provided by the host body. Despite these defenses, pathogens may enter the body through skin abrasions or punctures, or by collecting on mucosal surfaces in large numbers that overcome the protections of mucus or cilia.