The vast surfaces of the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and genitourinary tracts represent major sites of potential attack by invading micro-organisms. Immunoglobulin A (IgA), as the principal antibody class in the secretions that bathe these mucosal surfaces, acts as an important first line of defence. IgA, also an important serum immunoglobulin, mediates a variety of protective functions through interaction with specific receptors and immune mediators. The importance of such protection is underlined by the fact that certain pathogens have evolved mechanisms to compromise IgA-mediated defence, providing an opportunity for more effective invasion. IgA function may also be perturbed in certain disease states, some of which are characterized by deposition of IgA in specific tissues. This review details current understanding of the roles played by IgA in both health and disease. Copyright © 2006 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.