What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis¬† is an infectious bacterial condition that affects a person’s lungs.

Untreated, it has the potential to become serious and the World Health Organization considers it one of the leading causes of death alongside HIV. However, there are far fewer cases in the United States today than in the past. Before effective medical treatments were available, the disease (then called consumption) would trigger deadly outbreaks in many regions. Now the worldwide mortality rate has dropped by almost half in just the last 25 years.

Part of the reason tuberculosis can be so difficult to contain is because of how it spreads. All a person has to do is cough or sneeze, and someone nearby could catch it.

Before this was understood, it was extremely easy for a large number of people to become infected very quickly. Today, it is both curable and preventable. Those who do contract the illness usually already have compromised immune systems from other conditions, such as malnutrition and HIV.

What are the Symptoms of Tuberculosis?

Many who become infected show no symptoms. In fact, about a third of the world’s population is estimated to have latent tuberculosis. Most of them will never fall ill.

Symptoms include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Pain while breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bloody phlegm
  • Night sweats
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Sweating
  • General discomfort
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Tuberculosis Causes

Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by the tuberculosis Mycobacterium. TB is spread by air when a person whose lungs are infected with TB coughs, spits, sneezes, even just talks or laughs.

TB is contagious when it is not being treated. Catching it from someone you live or work with is more likely than catching it from a stranger.

Antibiotic resistance has become a problem with some strains of TB, requiring multiple drugs to treat successfully. This is known as multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB).

Compromised immune systems cause higher risks for people to develop active TB. This includes those with HIV or autoimmune diseases.

Tobacco use has shown to increase the risk of TB, with more than 20 percent of global cases having a relation to smoking.

Further TB risk factors include low socioeconomic status, homelessness, crowded living conditions, being a health-care worker, alcoholism, migration or travel to countries with high numbers of cases.

How is Tuberculosis Treated?

Patients with latent tuberculosis do not always require treatment. When symptoms become active, a six-month course of several antibiotics will kill off the infection in the majority of cases.

During this time, a trained volunteer or healthcare worker will provide the individual with support and supervision. Otherwise it can be difficult to stay on track with treatment, and the likelihood of spreading the disease increases.

Tuberculosis Prevention

A key step you can take to towards preventing TB is to avoid people that may have contracted the illness. While certainly not always an option, the less contact you have with others, the less risk of germs attacking you. Good ventilation, covering your mouth, and wearing a mask can help in risky situations.

TB vaccinations given to children in many countries has slowed down the high numbers of people contracting the disease.

Finish all treatment medications. If you do contract TB, it is vital that you complete your courses of medication. This disease has strains that are resistant to antibiotics, and some even require chemotherapy to eradicate. Prevent recurrences by taking all medicines as prescribed.

Preventing active TB from developing when a person has latent tuberculosis infection (LTBI) but no symptoms is done by treating with isoniazid (INH) for as long as a year.

Avoiding travel to countries with high TB rates, such as Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Russia, South America, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
April 03, 2018
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