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The surface of every cell is covered with molecules that give it a unique set of characteristics. These molecules are called antigens. Antigens are generally fragments of protein or carbohydrate molecules. There are millions of different antigens and each one has a unique shape that can be recognised by the white blood cells of your immune system. The white blood cells then produce antibodies to match the shape of the antigens.
The antigens on the surface of pathogenic cells are different from those on the surface of your own cells. This enables your immune system to distinguish pathogens from cells that are part of your body. Antigens are also found on the surface of foreign materials like pollen, pet hairs and house dust where they can be responsible for triggering hay-fever or asthma attacks.