Key Points about Tuberculosis

  • Tuberculosis (TB) is an infection in the lungs caused by the Myobacterium tuberculosis bacteria.
  • Tuberculosis can spread from an infected person with an active form of TB, through microscopic airborne droplets containing the bacteria that are released while coughing or sneezing.
  • Symptoms of TB include a persistent cough that may be bloody, pain in the chest while breathing, fever, fatigue, weight loss and a decreased appetite.
  • TB is treated with a course of antibiotics, the type and duration of which will vary depending upon several different factors.
  • If left untreated, TB can be life-threatening.
  • Call your doctor if you develop symptoms of tuberculosis, or if you have any risk factors for being exposed to the bacteria.

Overview

Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial lung and other-organ infection that can cause chest pain, a painful or bloody cough, and a fever, among other symptoms.

Tuberculosis is contagious but does not spread easily. It typically only spreads via microscopic airborne droplets containing the bacteria, from a person whose TB is in an active form and is untreated. These droplets can spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or spits.

Treating TB involves taking a long, involved course of antibiotics. Duration and type of antibiotic treatment varies depending upon a person’s general health and age, as well as whether the bacteria are resistant to certain medications, and whether they have infected multiple parts of the body. Your doctor can provide a comprehensive diagnosis of the extent of your infection and can prescribe treatment accordingly. 

Tuberculosis causes

Tuberculosis is caused by the Myobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. It can spread to others from an infected person through microscopic bacteria-filled droplets, which can be released when an infected person:

  • Coughs
  • Sneezes
  • Spits
  • Sings
  • Laughs
  • Talks

Some people are carriers of a TB infection that is not causing symptoms. This is called latent TB, and it is not contagious. TB in its active form is contagious, but usually only spreads to people with whom the infected person has frequent, close contact.

Tuberculosis risk factors

While TB can affect anyone, it is more likely to develop in people who:

  • Have a weakened immune system, such as from HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, or malnutrition
  • Live or have traveled in places where TB is more common and more drug-resistant, such as in Russia, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe
  • Work or live in a place that is crowded and has inadequate ventilation, such as some residential healthcare facilities
  • Work in a hospital, where you may come into contact with infected persons more frequently
  • Live with or spend a lot of time with an infected, untreated person
  • Smoke tobacco
  • Abuse substances
  • Do not have access to adequate medical care

Tuberculosis symptoms

The bacteria responsible for tuberculosis can remain inactive in the body after infection. Tuberculosis in this state, called latent TB, does not cause symptoms. If the infection turns into active TB, it can cause symptoms such as:

  • A bloody, painful cough
  • Coughing the persists longer than three weeks
  • Pain in the chest while breathing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever, chills, and sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Losing weight unintentionally

If the infection spreads to other parts of the body, additional symptoms may develop depending on the affected areas.

Tuberculosis complications

Untreated TB can spread to other parts of the body and can ultimately be fatal. TB can affect the:

  • Spine
  • Joints
  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Heart
  • Brain

Tuberculosis diagnosis

When diagnosing TB, a doctor conduct a physical examination, looking for:

  • Swelling in the lymph nodes
  • Breathing sounds that may indicate TB

Your doctor may also order the following tests:

  • Simple skin test
  • Blood test
  • Sputum test
  • CT scan or X-ray

Tuberculosis treatment

Tuberculosis is treated with a long, highly involved course of antibiotics. The type and duration of antibiotic treatment will depend upon factors such as:

  • The person’s age
  • Their general health status
  • Whether their TB is active or latent
  • Whether their strain of TB is resistant to certain—or most—antibiotics
  • Which areas of the body are infected

When to seek care

Call your doctor if you have symptoms of tuberculosis. You should also set up an appointment with your doctor if you have any of the risk factors for TB, as TB screening is recommended for high-risk groups.

Next Steps

It is very important to complete the full course of TB treatment, as an unfinished antibiotics course can cause the bacteria to return in a form that is resistant to the medication.

Medications that treat TB can have severs side-effects, particularly for the liver. Call your doctor if you develop the following symptoms while taking antibiotics for TB:

  • A yellowing of the skin
  • Decreased appetite
  • Urine that is a dark yellow color
  • Fever that does not go away after three days
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting