An encounter with a potential pathogen is known as exposure or contact. The food we eat and the objects we handle are all ways that we can come into contact with potential pathogens. Yet, not all contacts result in infection and disease. For a pathogen to cause disease, it needs to be able to gain access into host tissue. An anatomic site through which pathogens can pass into host tissue is called a portal of entry. These are locations where the host cells are in direct contact with the external environment. Major portals of entry are identified in the figure above and include the skin, mucous membranes, and parenteral routes.
Mucosal surfaces are the most important portals of entry for microbes; these include the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract, the gastrointestinal tract, and the genitourinary tract. Although most mucosal surfaces are in the interior of the body, some are contiguous with the external skin at various body openings, including the eyes, nose, mouth, urethra, and anus.
Most pathogens are suited to a particular portal of entry. A pathogen’s portal specificity is determined by the organism’s environmental adaptions and by the enzymes and toxins they secrete. The respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts are particularly vulnerable portals of entry because particles that include microorganisms are constantly inhaled or ingested, respectively.
Pathogens can also enter through a breach in the protective barriers of the skin and mucous membranes. Pathogens that enter the body in this way are said to enter by the parenteral route. For example, the skin is a good natural barrier to pathogens, but breaks in the skin (e.g., wounds, insect bites, animal bites, needle pricks) can provide a parenteral portal of entry for microorganisms.
In pregnant women, the placenta normally prevents microorganisms from passing from the mother to the fetus. However, a few pathogens are capable of crossing the blood-placental barrier. The gram-positive bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, which causes the foodborne disease listeriosis, is one example that poses a serious risk to the fetus and can sometimes lead to spontaneous abortion. Other pathogens that can pass the placental barrier to infect the fetus are known collectively by the acronym TORCH.
Transmission of infectious diseases from mother to baby is also a concern at the time of birth when the baby passes through the birth canal. Babies whose mothers have active chlamydia or gonorrhea infections may be exposed to the causative pathogens in the vagina, which can result in eye infections that lead to blindness. To prevent this, it is standard practice to administer antibiotic drops to infants’ eyes shortly after birth.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology