Active vs Passive Immunity

Team Biology at
Created by: Team Biology at, Last Updated: April 25, 2024

Active vs Passive Immunity

Active immunity is achieved by exposing the body to an antigen to trigger a long-lasting adaptive immune response. In contrast, passive immunity involves the transfer of antibodies from one individual to another, providing immediate but temporary protection. This can happen naturally, such as through maternal antibodies, or artificially via antibody injections. Passive immunity is crucial for combating new, resistant pathogens and protecting individuals with weakened immune systems. This overview highlights the key roles and differences between these two forms of immunity.

Active Immunity

Active immunity occurs when an individual’s immune system generates a defense against a pathogen. This form of immunity can develop in two primary ways: through natural infection or through vaccination.

  • Natural Immunity: This type of active immunity develops after a person is exposed to, and recovers from, a disease. During this process, the body’s immune system responds to the invading pathogen by producing specific antibodies. As a result, the individual gains protection against future infections by the same pathogen.
  • Vaccine-induced Immunity: Vaccines are designed to simulate an infection, prompting the immune system to respond without causing the actual disease. Vaccines may contain live attenuated (weakened) pathogens, inactivated (killed) pathogens, or specific parts of the pathogen such as proteins. By introducing these elements to the body, the vaccine triggers an immune response which includes the production of antibodies. This engineered exposure helps to prepare the immune system to fight off future encounters with the disease.

Active immunity is generally long-lasting and can often provide lifelong protection against a pathogen. Upon subsequent exposures to the disease, the immune system swiftly recognizes and combats the invader, thanks to the memory cells produced during initial exposure.

Passive Immunity

Passive immunity, unlike active immunity, involves the direct transfer of antibodies from one individual to another. This type of immunity can be acquired naturally or artificially:

  • Natural Passive Immunity: A common example is the transfer of maternal antibodies to a fetus through the placenta during pregnancy. These antibodies help protect the newborn against infections during the early months of life.
  • Artificial Passive Immunity: This form of immunity involves administering antibody-containing blood products, such as immune globulin, to an individual. Healthcare providers use these products to provide immediate protection against diseases when the body does not have time to develop its own immune response. This method often comes into play when a person faces exposure to a disease and is at high risk of complications, such as rabies or certain types of poisoning.

Passive immunity offers rapid protection; however, it is temporary, lasting only a few weeks to months. The body does not develop memory cells in this type of immunity, so there is no long-term protection against future infections.

Differences between Active Immunity and Passive Immunity

Differences between Active Immunity and Passive Immunity

FeatureActive ImmunityPassive Immunity
DefinitionActive immunity refers to the immunity that develops after exposure to a pathogen or through vaccination. It involves the production of antibodies by the immune system.Passive immunity is the type of immunity acquired by the transfer of antibodies or activated T-cells from another individual, such as from mother to fetus or through antibody-containing products.
SourceGenerated by the individual’s own immune system after exposure to an infectious agent or vaccine.Acquired from another source, either naturally through maternal antibodies or artificially through injections of antibodies like immunoglobulins.
DurationLong-lasting, often lifelong due to memory cell formation.Short-term, lasting only a few weeks to months as the antibodies are eventually degraded.
Onset of ActionSlow, as it requires time for the immune system to recognize the pathogen, activate, and produce specific antibodies.Immediate, as the antibodies or cells are already formed and active upon transfer.
MemoryYes, involves the formation of memory cells which quicken the response upon future exposure to the same pathogen.No, does not involve the formation of memory cells; no enhanced response upon future exposure.
Types of Agents InvolvedAntigens that stimulate the immune response. These can be live-attenuated, killed, or parts of the pathogen such as proteins.Antibodies or lymphocytes from an immune donor.
ExampleDeveloping immunity after recovering from chickenpox or receiving a chickenpox vaccine.Receiving anti-venom for a snake bite or antibodies passed from mother to baby during pregnancy.
AdvantagesProvides durable protection; enhances the immune system’s ability to respond more rapidly and effectively on subsequent exposures.Provides immediate protection; beneficial in cases where there is no time for the body to develop its own immune response.
DisadvantagesTakes time to develop; initial exposure or vaccination might lead to mild symptoms of the disease.Temporary protection; can sometimes lead to allergic reactions or other side effects if the immune components are not fully compatible.

Key Differences Between Active Immunity and Passive Immunity

  1. Source of Antibodies:
    • Active Immunity: The person’s own immune system produces antibodies in response to infection or vaccination.
    • Passive Immunity: An external source, either another human or an animal, provides the antibodies.
  2. Memory Response:
    • Active Immunity: Creates memory cells that ensure long-term immunity and enable a quicker response upon re-exposure to the same antigen.
    • Passive Immunity: Does not generate memory cells, so it fails to establish long-term immunity.
  3. Duration of Immunity:
    • Active Immunity: Often lasts for years or a lifetime due to memory cells.
    • Passive Immunity: Offers immediate protection but is short-lived, typically lasting a few weeks to months.
  4. Onset of Protection:
    • Active Immunity: Develops slowly as the body takes time to produce a specific immune response.
    • Passive Immunity: Provides immediate protection since the antibodies are already formed and available.
  5. Types of Exposure:
    • Active Immunity: Results from exposure to the disease itself or through a vaccine.
    • Passive Immunity: Comes from the transfer of antibodies, like maternal antibodies passed to a newborn or through antibody-containing treatments.
  6. Component Involved:
    • Active Immunity: Involves antigens that stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies.
    • Passive Immunity: Involves introducing antibodies directly from an external source.
  7. Purpose and Use:
    • Active Immunity: Serves for long-term disease prevention through vaccination or natural infection.
    • Passive Immunity: Is ideal for immediate protection or when an individual cannot mount an effective immune response.

Key Similarities Between Active and Passive Immunity

Active and passive immunity share several crucial similarities, despite their differences in how they provide protection against diseases:

  • Purpose of Protection: Both types of immunity aim to protect the individual from specific diseases. Whether through the production of antibodies by the individual’s immune system in active immunity or through the transfer of antibodies in passive immunity, the primary goal remains the defense against pathogens.
  • Involvement of Antibodies: In both active and passive immunity, antibodies play a central role. These antibodies identify and neutralize pathogens, preventing them from causing disease.
  • Use in Preventative Health: Medical professionals utilize both forms of immunity strategically to prevent disease. Vaccinations represent a proactive approach to stimulate active immunity, while the administration of immune globulin for immediate protection leverages passive immunity.
  • Impact on Public Health: Both active and passive immunity are instrumental in controlling outbreaks and managing public health. They help reduce the spread of infectious diseases, protect vulnerable populations, and build community immunity, or herd immunity.


What’s the Difference Between Active and Passive Immunity?

Active immunity involves your body producing antibodies, lasting years. Passive immunity provides immediate, short-term protection through external antibodies.

Which Is an Example of Passive Immunity?

Receiving anti-venom for snake bites is an example of passive immunity, providing immediate, temporary protection.

What Are 3 Examples of Active Immunity?

Examples include immunity developed from measles recovery, flu vaccination, and exposure to chickenpox virus, all inducing long-term protection.

What Is the Difference Between Active and Passive Immunity IGCSE?

For IGCSE, active immunity results from direct exposure to pathogens, creating long-lasting memory cells. Passive immunity involves receiving pre-made antibodies for short-term defense.

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