Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks white blood cells – the main units of your immune system. As a result, it makes your immune system weaker, which makes you prone to infections and some diseases and these become more dangerous for you because your body cannot defend itself very well. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is an advanced stage of the disease when the body starts developing complicated health issues.

In the first few months after infection, there may be no symptoms and the person may be unaware of their status, potentially spreading the virus. However, some people experience flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, rash and sore throat.

As the infection continues, it gradually weakens the immune system and you may experience swollen lymph nodes, unintentional weight loss, fever, diarrhoea or persistent cough. Without treatment, the body becomes susceptible to other infections and diseases, including severe bacterial infections and some types of cancer. 

HIV spreads through the body fluids of an infected person – usually blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk. It does not spread through saliva so you cannot get infected by kissing or sharing food. You can get infected by contaminated needles, syringes and other injecting equipment or tattooing and piercing using contaminated needles. Unprotected (without a condom) sex with an infected person puts you at risk of infection and this risk varies by the specific sexual act or type of exposure.

There can also be a mother to baby transmission but with the right treatment, HIV positive mothers can have uninfected babies.

There is no cure for HIV infection but it is treated with antiretroviral therapy (ART), which enables infected people to live long and healthy lives. People with HIV who are taking ART and have an undetectable viral load do not spread HIV to their sexual partners. If you have HIV, a healthy lifestyle is very important as it can support your immune system. On the other hand, an unhealthy lifestyle will burden your immune system and may even weaken it further. A balanced vegan diet, based on fruit and vegetables, pulses, wholegrain products and nuts and seeds, not smoking, limiting or avoiding alcohol and stress-management techniques will give you the best chance for a long and healthy life.