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How Does HIV Affect the Immune System? 5 Ways To Boost Your Immunity

Posted on December 27, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Barry S. Zingman, M.D.
Article written by
Emily Wagner, M.S.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that targets the body’s immune cells, making it difficult for the body to fight off infections and certain cancers. Advances in medication for treating HIV have made it possible for people to manage the condition and help their immune system continue to function. There are also lifestyle changes you can make to help boost your immunity and support your overall health.

How Does HIV Affect the Immune System?

HIV directly affects your immune system’s function by infecting specialized white blood cells known as CD4-positive T cells. Also known as helper T cells, these immune cells do not directly kill infected cells in the body. Instead, they help activate the immune system against infections by communicating with other types of immune cells. These include:

  • CD8-positive T cells, which kill infected or cancerous cells
  • Macrophages, which pick up antigens (proteins) from infections to activate the immune system
  • B cells, which make antibodies

HIV is classified as a retrovirus, a type of virus that makes copies of itself differently than most other viruses. When HIV comes into contact with a CD4-positive T cell, it binds to specialized proteins on the outside of the cell, allowing the virus to enter. The virus then releases its genetic code into the cell in the form of RNA. It then uses a specialized enzyme known as reverse transcriptase to make DNA, which is the same genetic code found in human cells.

In order for HIV to continue making more copies of itself, it inserts its own DNA into the T cell’s DNA. This allows the virus to “hijack” the T cell’s ability to replicate and make more copies of itself. Essentially, the infected T cell becomes a factory for making more HIV. Once all of the pieces of the virus are made, it’s assembled and then released from the cell.

Over time, HIV infection kills off both infected and uninfected CD4-positive T cells. This lowers a person’s cell counts, which prevents their immune system from working properly. Normally, CD4-positive T-cell counts are between 500 to 1,500 cells per cubic millimeter.

Acute HIV Infection

The first stage of HIV, known as acute HIV infection, develops when there’s an initial large amount of HIV in a person’s bloodstream. CD4-positive T-cell counts also begin to drop as the virus infects and kills them. Many people with acute HIV infection experience flu-like symptoms, including a sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, fever, and muscle aches.

If you test positive for HIV, you can immediately begin taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) medications. These medications block the virus from replicating in your CD4-positive T cells, keeping them from being depleted. As a consequence, ART medications lower the viral load (amount of virus in the bloodstream), helping to prevent the virus from getting into uninfected cells.

Chronic HIV Infection

For people living with HIV who don’t use ART medications, their condition progresses to more dangerous stages of infection. In this scenario, HIV will continue to infect their body’s CD4-positive T cells, their viral load will increase, and their T-cell count will continue to drop. A person with chronic (ongoing) HIV infection may not notice any symptoms, but they can still transmit the virus to others. This phase of infection may last for a decade or more, or it may progress more quickly.

AIDS

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is diagnosed once your CD4-positive T- cell count falls below 200 cells per cubic millimeter. This means your immune system has very few T cells left, putting you at a high risk for developing infections and other illnesses. The HIV viral load is typically very high in people living with AIDS, and the virus can be easily transmitted to another person.

Infections and Conditions Related to HIV

HIV/AIDS severely weakens your immune system, making it much harder for it to fight off other viruses, bacterial or fungal infections (known as opportunistic infections), and cancers. Without help from CD4-positive T cells, your body can’t make a strong enough immune response.

Conditions that develop in people with HIV/AIDS (due to a weakened immune system) more commonly than in people who don’t have HIV include:

  • Pneumocystis pneumonia — A fungal infection in the lungs that causes chest pain, fever, and trouble breathing
  • Candidiasis (thrush) — A fungal infection that results in a thick, white coating on the mouth, throat, tongue, or vagina

  • Tuberculosis — A lung infection that is a common cause of death in people with AIDS
  • Cytomegalovirus — A virus related to herpes that commonly infects people with weakened immune systems and that can affect the vision and other parts of the body
  • Toxoplasmosis — An infection with a parasite that is normally harmless in healthy people but can cause headaches, seizures, and coma in people with AIDS
  • Certain types of cancers — Includes Kaposi’s sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and cervical and anal cancers caused by human papillomavirus infection

5 Ways To Boost Your Immune System

If you’re living with HIV, there are certain steps you can take to control the infection and help boost your immunity. Most important is to take ART medications, but there are also lifestyle changes that help keep your immune system healthy. These changes not only affect your immunity but may also improve your overall health.

1. Take Antiretroviral Therapy Medication

HIV medicines like those used in ART help reduce your viral load and keep HIV in check. This helps prevent the virus from infecting your CD4-positive T cells. It may also prevent your T-cell count from dropping, and it will usually raise your T-cell count over time. Having a normal CD4-positive T-cell count will help to fight infections and cancers.

There are many treatment options for ART, and your doctor will likely recommend a combination of medications. It’s important to take your ART medications as prescribed by your doctor. Even when you have extremely low levels of HIV, the virus still lives in your body. If you stop taking your medication, the virus may become more active and infect your cells again.

2. Eat a Healthy Diet

Eating a healthy diet is an important part of staying healthy, and it’s very important for those living with HIV. Getting proper nutrition from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins (yogurt, beans, eggs, poultry, and fish) supports your overall health. Eating healthy provides essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that your immune system needs to function properly. It may also help your system to better absorb ART medications.

Nutrients that may support immune cells include vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and protein. It’s better to get these nutrients through food. If you’re considering trying a vitamin or mineral supplement, speak with your health care provider first.

3. Limit Your Alcohol Consumption

Did you know that regularly consuming alcohol can directly damage your immune cells, thereby weakening your immune system? The liver — which breaks down alcohol and other toxins to clear them from the body — can become damaged from too much alcohol. This can prevent the organ from properly breaking down alcohol. As a result, the alcohol and toxins can build up, further damaging your immune cells.

Alcohol may also interact with your ART medications, making them less effective. Talk to your doctor about the amount of alcohol that’s safe to consume while living with HIV.

4. Manage Your Stress Levels

Living with HIV can be stressful, whether you’re worrying about medications, appointments, or your health in general. Stress can also take a toll on your immune system by raising your levels of cortisol and producing other adverse effects on the body. Over time, this can reduce the number of lymphocytes (T cells and B cells), weakening your immune system.

Finding new ways to help manage your stress levels can help you relax while also improving your immunity. Exercising regularly, meditating for 10 to 15 minutes a few times a week, or practicing yoga may help lower your stress.

5. Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise can lower your stress. It’s also good for many parts of your body, and it might help give your immune system a boost.

Exercise doesn’t have to involve going to the gym — you can walk around your neighborhood, do some gardening, or enjoy a bike ride with friends or family. Any activity that increases your heart rate and gets your blood pumping can help. Exercising can also help prevent unwanted side effects from ART medications, such as diabetes and osteoporosis.

To learn about more ways to boost your immunity while living with HIV, talk to your doctor. They may recommend new medications or lifestyle changes you can make to support your immune system.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myHIVteam — the social network for people with HIV and their loved ones — more than 35,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with HIV.

What do you do to help boost your immunity? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Barry S. Zingman, M.D. specializes in HIV/AIDS medicine and general infectious disease. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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