Fact Sheet – Our immune system and HIV

How our immune system works

Our immune system works hard to keep our body clean on the inside and helps clear up any old, dead cells inside us. We keep our immune system strong by eating plenty of rainbow foods to make sure we include important nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin C and zinc. We can help our immune system by not making it work hard all the time, so it can be ready for action when something dangerous attacks our body. We can make sure we avoid contact with everyday germs and viruses that give us coughs, colds, bad stomachs and diarrhoea. We do this by washing our hands. We can keep safe from dangerous viruses like HIV by avoiding contact with blood and the fluids our bodies make during sex.

HIV is a virus (the V is for Virus)

  • What is a virus?
  • What do viruses do?
  • How does our body protect us against viruses?
  • Why is HIV so dangerous?

What is a virus?

A virus is so tiny you can’t see it. It’s like a germ but has a hard coating around it to help it last longer in the environment.

What do viruses do?

When a virus gets into our body it invades our cells and tricks them into doing what the virus wants them to do, and not what they should be doing to keep us healthy. The virus is clever and stops our cells working properly and instead, makes them create more viruses.

How does our body protect us against viruses?

If our immune system doesn’t act fast, the viruses can stop our bodies from working properly, making us ill. When our immune system attacks a virus, it coats it in protein and it gets pushed out of our body in our blood, pee and poo.

Why is HIV so dangerous?

Sometimes viruses are so dangerous, even our fantastic immune system can’t protect us against them and the virus stays in our body. This is what happens when someone gets infected by the HIV virus. The HIV virus is very dangerous. Once the HIV virus gets inside our body, it stops our immune system working properly to protect us from other germs and viruses. By stopping our immune system working properly the HIV virus can make our bodies weak and eventually develop a disease called AIDS.

What foods we can eat to help our immune system stay strong and ready for action?

We always need to eat plenty of different things to get all the nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. Our immune system likes a few special micro-nutrients – they are called ‘micro’ because we only need a tiny amount to keep us well:
  • Vitamin A – this is an important vitamin for our eyes as well as our immune system. We find vitamin A in dark green leafy vegetables, eggs and liver.
  • Vitamin C – this vitamin is found in fresh fruits and vegetables. We need to eat fruit and vegetables every day because our body cannot store vitamin C.
  • Zinc – zinc is a mineral that helps our immune cells be ready for action. Zinc is found in shell fish and in nuts including cashew nuts. If we eat lots of different foods we can be sure we are getting enough zinc.

Visit our HIV & AIDS pages for more information!