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How Your Immune System Works

Different Roles

Each of the different types of white blood cells have a special role in the immune system, and many are able to transform themselves in different ways. The following descriptions help to understand the roles of the different cells.

  • Neutrophils are by far the most common form of white blood cells that you have in your body. Your bone marrow produces trillions of them every day and releases them into the bloodstream, but their life span is short -- generally less than a day. Once in the bloodstream neutrophils can move through capillary walls into tissue. Neutorphils are attracted to foreign material, inflammation and bacteria. If you get a splinter or a cut, neutrophils will be attracted by a process called chemotaxis. Many single-celled organisms use this same process -- chemotaxis lets motile cells move toward higher concentrations of a chemical. Once a neutrophil finds a foreign particle or a bacteria it will engulf it, releasing enzymes, hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals from its granules to kill the bacteria. In a site of serious infection (where lots of bacteria have reproduced in the area), pus will form. Pus is simply dead neutrophils and other cellular debris.
  • Eosinophils and basophils are far less common than neutrophils. Eosinophils seem focused on parasites in the skin and the lungs, while Basophils carry histamine and therefore important (along with mast cells) to causing inflammation. From the immune system's standpoint inflammation is a good thing. It brings in more blood and it dilates capillary walls so that more immune system cells can get to the site of infection.
  • Of all blood cells, macrophages are the biggest (hence the name "macro"). Monocytes are released by the bone marrow, float in the bloodstream, enter tissue and turn into macrophages. Most boundary tissue has its own devoted macrophages. For example, alveolar macrophages live in the lungs and keep the lungs clean (by ingesting foreign particles like smoke and dust) and disease free (by ingesting bacteria and microbes). Macrophages are called langerhans cells when they live in the skin. Macrophages also swim freely. One of their jobs is to clean up dead neutrophils -- macropghages clean up pus, for example, as part of the healing process.
  • The lymphocytes handle most of the bacterial and viral infections that we get. Lymphocytes start in the bone marrow. Those destined to become B cells develop in the marrow before entering the bloodstream. T cells start in the marrow but migrate through the bloodstream to the thymus and mature there. T cells and B cells are often found in the bloodstream but tend to concentrate in lymph tissue such as the lymph nodes, the thymus and the spleen. There is also quite a bit of lymph tissue in the digestive system. B cells and T cells have different functions.
  • B cells, when stimulated, mature into plasma cells -- these are the cells that produce antibodies. A specific B cell is tuned to a specific germ, and when the germ is present in the body the B cell clones itself and produces millions of antibodies designed to eliminate the germ.
  • T cells, on the other hand, actually bump up against cells and kill them. T cells known as Killer T cells can detect cells in your body that are harboring viruses, and when it detects such a cell it kills it. Two other types of T cells, known as Helper and Suppressor T cells, help sensitize killer T cells and control the immune response.