What do King Tut, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Bronte have in common? They’re all believed to have died from tuberculosis. And while tuberculosis, or TB, might seem like a disease of yore, it’s far from eradicated in our modern society. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reveals that 10.4 million people were diagnosed with TB in 2016, and 1.7 million died from the disease. Understanding tuberculosis causes, and what you can do to prevent the illness, is the best way to stop TB from spreading.
Tuberculosis Causes and Transmission
What is tuberculosis? A contagious disease with potentially serious symptoms, tuberculosis is an infection resulting from exposure to bacteria. Transmission can occur when an infected person sneezes, laughs, spits, or coughs, releasing microscopic droplets into the air. However, it’s not very easy to catch tuberculosis. Moreover, most TB patients who have been on medication for at least two weeks are no longer able to transmit the disease.
Tuberculosis affects the lungs, leading to coughing and breathing problems. However, not every tuberculosis patient becomes ill. While people with active TB typically show symptoms of the disease, those with latent tuberculosis don’t usually feel ill or display symptoms. It’s important to know that people with latent TB can go on to develop active TB or even TB disease down the line. A potentially fatal condition, TB disease occurs when the bacteria are able to become active and multiply in the body. Seeking treatment for latent TB can help prevent the condition from turning into active TB or TB disease.
The following groups are at an increased risk of contracting TB and/or developing TB disease:
- Family and close friends of a person diagnosed with active TB
- People who live in areas with high TB rates
- Homeless persons
- People who use IV drugs
- People who are HIV positive
According to the World Health Organization, the number of tuberculosis infections has been rising since the 80s, due in part to the emergence of HIV. As the disease weakens patients’ immune systems, they are less able to fight off the TB infection.
Tuberculosis Signs and Symptoms
While people with a latent TB infection don’t typically display symptoms, those with active TB suffer numerous side effects, including:
- Persistent cough
- Coughing up blood and/or mucus
- Chest pain
- Breathing difficulties and/or pain
- Weight loss and loss of appetite
- Fever, chills, and night sweats
While tuberculosis largely affects the lungs, the disease can also have an impact on the kidneys, spine, and even brain. Seeking immediate treatment is the best way to prevent TB symptoms from becoming more serious and to avoid spreading the disease to others.
Tuberculosis Prevention and Treatment
The good news is that a vaccine exists to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. Created in the 1920s, the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine (BCG) is administered to around 80% of babies worldwide and has been proven effective in preventing the development of TB. For patients who have already been diagnosed with latent tuberculosis, a TB drug treatment exists to reduce the odds of the latent TB turning into the active form of the disease.
Further, tuberculosis patients must typically take antibiotics for six to nine months, with the specific drug regimen determined by the individual’s age, health, and form of the disease. Patients with drug-resistant TB may need to take a combination of antibiotics and injectable medications for a period of 20 to 30 months.
Getting Tested for Tuberculosis
Think you or a loved one may have been exposed to tuberculosis? If so, it’s important to undergo TB testing immediately. Doctors use two kinds of tests to diagnose TB: the TB skin test and TB blood tests. However, a positive skin or blood test only reveals that a person has been infected with TB bacteria; it doesn’t show if the patient has latent TB, active TB, or TB disease.
Patients who receive positive test results will need to undergo further assessment, such as chest x-rays, to assess the stage of the disease.
You may want to get tested for TB if you are experiencing symptoms of the condition and/or you:
- Have spent time with someone infected with TB
- Have spent time in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, or Russia
- Work in a healthcare setting, homeless shelter, or correctional facility
- Were treated for TB in the past
Note that people with a low risk of infection from TB bacteria generally don’t require testing.