When most people think about diseases of the lungs, what automatically comes to mind are Chronic Bronchitis or Chronic Emphysema, also known as COPD. What most people don’t realize is that Tuberculosis, or TB, is one of the world’s deadliest diseases that mostly affects the lungs.
TB is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. In most cases, this bacterium attacks the lungs, but it can attack any part of the body, such as the kidneys, spine and even the brain. If left untreated or treated improperly, TB can be fatal.
People who have latent TB infection do not feel sick, do not have any symptoms, and cannot spread TB to others.
TB is an airborne illness. It can be spread through the air when a person with active TB of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings. If others breathe in these bacteria, they may become infected. This infection cannot be transmitted by shaking someone’s hand, sharing food or beverage, touching bed linens or toilet seats, sharing toothbrushes or by kissing.
Those who are at high risk of contracting TB are:
*People who have been recently infected with the TB bacteria:
- Close contacts of a person with infectious TB disease
- Persons who have immigrated from areas of the world with high rates of TB
- Children less than 5 years of age who have a positive TB test
- Groups with high rates of TB transmission, such as homeless persons, injection drug users, and persons with HIV infection
- Persons who work or reside with people who are at high risk for TB in facilities or institutions such as hospitals, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes, and residential homes for those with HIV
*People with medical conditions that compromise their immune system. Infants and young children often have weak immune systems, as do people with the following conditions
- HIV infection (the virus that causes AIDS)
- Substance abuse
- Diabetes mellitus
- Severe kidney disease
- Low body weight
- Organ transplants
- Head and neck cancer
- Medical treatments such as corticosteroids or organ transplant
- Specialized treatment for rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease
Tuberculosis is a “sneaky” disease. Some people develop the disease within weeks of being affected; others will get sick a year later. Either way, it is a weakened immune system that often leads to the development of the disease.
Persons should get tested for TB by their doctor or local health department if they
- have spent time with a person known or suspected to have active TB disease
- have HIV infection or another condition that weakens the immune system and puts them at high risk for active TB disease
- have symptoms of active TB disease
- are from a country where active TB disease is prevalent (most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia)
- live somewhere in the United States where active TB disease is more common such as a homeless shelter, migrant farm camp, prison or jail, or some nursing homes)
- inject illegal drugs
Symptoms of TB disease depend on where the bacteria are growing, however, it usually affects the lunch. In this case, the symptoms are typically the following: a bad cough lasting > 3 weeks, chest pain, coughing up blood or sputum. Other TB symptoms are weakness or fatigue, weight loss, no appetite, chills, fever and night sweats.
Treatment for active TB includes taking several drugs for 6 to 12 months. It is highly essential to take these medications as directed and for the entire course of the treatment. If treatment is stopped early, the infection can return and become resistant to the drugs making it more difficult and more expensive to treat.
If you or someone you know thinks that they might be infected, a visit to the doctor is definitely in order. Medical evaluation should include taking a complete medical history, physical examination, TB testing (PPD or blood test), chest x-ray and other lab tests deemed appropriate by your physician.
As one of the world’s deadliest diseases, Tuberculosis has infected nearly one-third of the global population. In 2010, there were almost 9 million cases of TB disease around the world. Of those, 1.4 million resulted in TB-related death.
Information on this page is for reference and educational purposes only. For more information about tuberculosis, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.