Infections often involve the mucosal surfaces of the body, which form a boundary with the outside world. This review focuses on immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies because IgA is the principal mucosal antibody class. IgA is synthesized by local plasma cells and has a specific polymeric immunoglobulin receptor-mediated transport mechanism for entry into the secretions. By serving as an external barrier capable of inhibiting attachment of microbes to the luminal surface of the mucosal epithelial lining, IgA antibodies form the first line of immune defense. In addition to this traditional mode of extracellular antibody function, recent evidence suggests that IgA antibodies can also function in a nontraditional fashion by neutralizing viruses intracellularly, if a virus is infecting an epithelial cell through which specific IgA antibody is passing on its way to the secretions. IgA antibodies are also envisaged as providing an internal mucosal barrier beneath the mucosal lining. Antigens intercepted by IgA antibodies here can potentially be ferried through the epithelium and thereby excreted. In addition to the polymeric immunoglobulin receptor on mucosal epithelial cells, IgA antibodies can bind to receptors on a variety of leukocytes and have been shown, in some experimental systems, to be capable of activating the alternative complement pathway, making IgA antibodies potential participants in inflammatory reactions. Although the relationship of IgA antibodies to inflammation is not entirely clear, the bias presented is that IgA is basically noninflammatory, perhaps even anti-inflammatory. According to this view, the major role of the Fc portion of IgA antibodies is to transport IgA across mucosal epithelial cells and not, as in the case of the other classes of antibody, to activate secondary phenomena of the kind that contribute to inflammation. Because of IgA's key role as an initial barrier to infection, much current research in mucosal immunology is directed toward developing new vectors and adjuvants that can provide improved approaches to mucosal vaccines. Finally, because of advances in monoclonal antibody technology, topical application of antibodies to mucosal surfaces has significant potential for preventing and treating infections.