Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease that spreads through droplets when you cough or sneeze. It’s most commonly spread among people who live or work in close quarters. The disease typically affects the lungs but also can affect other organs, including the spine, kidneys and brain.
Most people who are exposed to tuberculosis don’t get sick. You can have TB germs in your body, but your immune system protects you from getting sick. This is known as “latent tuberculosis,” and you aren’t contagious — but treatment is still required. Or, you can be exposed to TB germs and get sick, known as “active tuberculosis,” which is contagious.
If you’ve become infected with TB but don’t have active TB disease, your doctor can prescribe medication to help prevent the germs from causing damage in the future. If you take your medicine as directed, it can keep you from developing active TB.
You’re more likely to develop tuberculosis after exposure to TB germs if you:
- Have a disease that weakens your immune system, such as HIV.
- Have had a TB infection in the last two years or you had a TB infection in the past and didn’t receive proper treatment.
- Are a baby, young child or older adult — ages when your immune system may be more susceptible to infection.
- Inject illegal drugs.
Tuberculosis can be deadly without proper treatment.
Symptoms of tuberculosis may include:
- Persistent cough.
- Coughing up blood.
- Fatigue or weakness.
- Night sweats.
- Loss of appetite and weight loss.
TB can be detected through a skin test or a TB blood test:
- The skin test is done by injecting a small amount of fluid, called tuberculin, into the skin of your arm. In 48 to 72 hours, a clinician will check your arm to see if a bump has developed and determine whether your reaction to the test is positive (you’re infected with TB) or negative.
- The TB blood test measures how your immune system reacts to the TB bacterium.
If you test positive for TB infection, it only means that you’ve been infected with TB germs. It doesn’t confirm whether you’ve developed active TB. Other tests, such as a chest X-ray and an analysis of your sputum (coughed-up mucus), can tell your doctor whether you have active TB.
At El Camino Health, our pulmonary health specialists have advanced expertise in treating TB. Treatment will depend on whether you have active TB disease or just TB infection:
- If you're infected with TB and don't have active TB disease, your doctor will prescribe a six- to nine-month course of preventive medication.
- If you have active TB disease, it requires a combination of medications over the course of six months to a year and may require a short hospital stay.
- If you have significant symptoms and difficulty breathing, your doctor may recommend airway stenting to provide relief.
Once you start treatment with medication, you’re no longer contagious and can’t spread the disease.
It’s very important that you continue to take the medicine correctly for the full length of treatment your doctor prescribes. If you take the medicine incorrectly or stop taking it, you may become sick again and will be able to infect others with TB.
If you don't take the medicine correctly and you become sick with TB a second time, the TB may be harder to treat if it’s become drug resistant, so it’s very important to follow your doctor’s instructions.