Viruses are acellular entities that can usually only be seen with an electron microscope. Their genomes contain either DNA or RNA, and they replicate using the replication proteins of a host cell. Viruses are diverse, infecting archaea, bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. Viruses consist of a nucleic-acid core surrounded by a protein capsid with or without an outer lipid envelope.
Viral replication within a living cell always produces changes in the cell, sometimes resulting in cell death and sometimes slowly killing the infected cells. There are six basic stages in the virus replication cycle: attachment, penetration, uncoating, replication, assembly, and release. A viral infection may be productive, resulting in new virions, or nonproductive, meaning the virus remains inside the cell without producing new virions.
Viruses cause a variety of diseases in humans. Many of these diseases can be prevented by the use of viral vaccines, which stimulate protective immunity against the virus without causing major disease. Viral vaccines may also be used in active viral infections, boosting the ability of the immune system to control or destroy the virus. Antiviral drugs that target enzymes and other protein products of viral genes have been developed and used with mixed success. Combinations of anti-HIV drugs have been used to effectively control the virus, extending the lifespan of infected individuals.
The innate immune system consists first of physical and chemical barriers to infection including the skin and mucous membranes and their secretions, ciliated surfaces, and body hairs. The second line of defense is an internal defense system designed to counter pathogenic threats that bypass the physical and chemical barriers of the body. Using a combination of cellular and molecular responses, the innate immune system identifies the nature of a pathogen and responds with inflammation, phagocytosis, cytokine release, destruction by NK cells, or the complement system.
The adaptive immune response is a slower-acting, longer-lasting, and more specific response than the innate response. However, the adaptive response requires information from the innate immune system to function. APCs display antigens on MHC molecules to naïve T cells. T cells with cell-surface receptors that bind a specific antigen will bind to that APC. In response, the T cells differentiate and proliferate, becoming TH cells or TC cells. TH cells stimulate B cells that have engulfed and presented pathogen-derived antigens. B cells differentiate into plasma cells that secrete antibodies, whereas TC cells destroy infected or cancerous cells. Memory cells are produced by activated and proliferating B and T cells and persist after a primary exposure to a pathogen. If re-exposure occurs, memory cells differentiate into effector cells without input from the innate immune system. The mucosal immune system is largely independent of the systemic immune system but functions in parallel to protect the extensive mucosal surfaces of the body. Immune tolerance is brought about by Treg cells to limit reactions to harmless antigens and the body’s own molecules.
Immune disruptions may involve insufficient immune responses or inappropriate immune responses. Immunodeficiency increases an individual's susceptibility to infections and cancers. Hypersensitivities are misdirected responses either to harmless foreign particles, as in the case of allergies, or to the individual’s own tissues, as in the case of autoimmunity. Reactions to self-components may be the result of molecular mimicry.