Our immune system is made up of individual cells and proteins, as well as entire organs and organ systems. The organs of the immune system include skin and mucous membranes, blood and the organs of the lymphatic system.
Which organs function as barriers?
Your skin and mucous membranes are the first line of defense against germs entering from outside the body. They act as a physical barrier with support from the following:
Antibacterial substances can kill germs right from the start. A certain enzyme found in saliva, the airways and tear fluid destroys the cell walls of bacteria.
Mucus in the bronchi helps trap many of the germs we breathe in so they can be moved out of the airways by hair-like structures called cilia.
Stomach acid stops most of the germs that enter the body in the food we eat.
Harmless bacteria on our skin and many of the mucous membranes in our body are also a part of the immune system.
The reflexes that cause us to cough and sneeze help us to remove germs from our airways, too.
The different parts of the immune system
What are lymphoid organs?
The lymphatic system is made up of:
Primary lymphoid organs: These organs include the bone marrow and the thymus. They make special immune system cells called lymphocytes.
Secondary lymphoid organs: These organs include the lymph nodes, the spleen, the tonsils and certain tissue in various mucous membrane layers in the body (for instance, in the bowel). It is in these organs where the cells of the immune system do their actual job of fighting off germs and foreign substances.
Bone marrow is a sponge-like tissue found inside the bones. That’s where most immune system cells are made and then also multiply. These cells move to other organs and tissues through the bloodstream. At birth, many bones contain red bone marrow, which actively creates immune system cells. Over the course of our life, more and more red bone marrow turns into fatty tissue. In adulthood, only a few of our bones still contain red bone marrow, including the ribs, breastbone and the pelvis.
The thymus is behind the breastbone, above the heart. This gland-like organ reaches full maturity only in children, and is then slowly transformed to fatty tissue. Special types of immune system cells called thymus cell lymphocytes (T cells) mature in the thymus. Among other tasks, these cells coordinate the processes of the innate and adaptive immune systems. T cells move through the body and constantly monitor the surfaces of all cells for changes.
Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped clumps of tissue found along the lymphatic vessels. The lymph nodes act as filters. Various immune system cells trap germs in the lymph nodes and trigger the production of special antibodies in the blood. Swollen or painful lymph nodes are a sign that the immune system is active – for example, because it’s fighting an infection.
The spleen is found in the upper left abdomen, beneath the diaphragm, and is responsible for many different jobs:
It stores various immune system cells. When needed, these cells travel to other organs in the bloodstream. Scavenger cells (phagocytes) in the spleen act as a filter for germs that get into the bloodstream.
It breaks down red blood cells (erythrocytes).
It stores and breaks down platelets (thrombocytes), which are responsible for the clotting of blood, among other things.
Spleen tissue always has a lot of blood flowing through it. It is also very soft, so it can tear easily – for example, when injured in an accident. Surgery is then usually needed because otherwise there’s a risk of bleeding to death. If the spleen needs to be removed completely, other immune system organs can carry out its job instead.
The tonsils are also part of the immune system. Because of their location in the throat and roof of the mouth, they can stop germs entering the body through the mouth or the nose. The tonsils also contain a lot of white blood cells, which are responsible for killing germs. There are different types of tonsils: palatine tonsils, adenoids and the lingual tonsil. Together, they form a ring of tonsil tissue (known as Waldeyer’s ring) around the opening of the throat from the mouth and nose.
There is also lymphoid tissue on the side of the throat. This tissue can take over the job of the palatine tonsils if they are removed.
The intestine (bowel) plays a central role in defending the body against germs: More than half of all the body's cells that make antibodies are found in the wall of the intestine, especially in the last part of the small intestine and in the appendix. These cells detect foreign substances, and then mark and destroy them. They also store information about the substances so they can react more quickly the next time. The large intestine also contains harmless bacteria called gut flora. Healthy gut flora make it difficult for germs to settle and enter the body.
IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.
Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.
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