What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, or TB, was once a major health threat in the United States but the danger diminished with the arrival of antibiotics. Still, it continues to spread among high-risk populations and in certain regions of the world. It is a highly contagious infection caused by Myobacterium tuberculosis, a type of bacteria that attacks the lungs and can easily spread to the spine and brain.

TB is an airborne disease, meaning you can catch it from the respiratory droplets of an infected person who coughs, sneezes, talks or laughs. It is not transmitted, however, by touching a contaminated surface or from shaking hands, or from drinking or eating after a person who has it.

You are at higher risk of getting TB if you are:

  • Often around a person with active TB
  • Have traveled to a country where the disease is more common (e.g., Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe)
  • Live or work among homeless people, IV drug users, or people with HIV

Health care workers, such as those who work in hospitals and clinics, are also more exposed to TB and therefore have greater risk of infection.

Symptoms of TB

Tuberculosis bacteria take a long time to grow so you would have to spend a lot of time around an infected person in order to become infected yourself. TB can also be latent, meaning the infection is there but you are not contagious and have no symptoms, or active, meaning the infection can spread easily to others and you can get sick. Some people with latent TB develop active TB later on.

If you have latent TB, you may not experience any symptoms at all. With active TB, you're likely to have some symptoms, such as:

  • Flu-like symptoms (chills, fever)
  • Long-lasting cough (more than three weeks)
  • Coughing up blood
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling tired all the time

People with strong immune systems who have been infected with TB can generally fight it off with antibiotics. People whose immune systems are compromised, however, may have a more difficult time recovering from TB. This includes people who:

  • Have diabetes
  • Have HIV/AIDS
  • Have received chemotherapy
  • Are taking medication for organ transplant
  • Are taking medication for Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or rheumatoid arthritis

Young children and babies, because their immune systems are still developing, are also more vulnerable to TB.

Diagnosis and testing for TB

To diagnose TB your doctor will perform a complete physical examination and review of your health history. The doctor will also ask you questions about possible exposure to TB in your work or social life. A blood test or skin test can help determine the presence of the bacteria.


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