The illness tuberculosis, or TB, is an infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. These bacteria infect the body, concentrating their effects in the lungs, but they may also spread to the:
- Lymph nodes
The symptoms of tuberculosis are varied and often include:
- Weight loss
- Night sweats
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
- Persistent cough (lasting at least three weeks)
- Phlegm or blood in cough
- Chest pain
- Wheezing sound when breathing
- Breathing problems
Types of Tuberculosis
Tuberculosis can be symptomatic or inactive — you can have active tuberculosis disease with symptoms or latent tuberculosis infection. People with latent tuberculosis infection have the bacteria in their lungs and test positive for the illness, but haven’t yet experienced any symptoms. People with active tuberculosis do experience symptoms and can pass the disease to others; people with latent tuberculosis cannot infect others.
People with latent tuberculosis infection may not necessarily develop active tuberculosis, but some will.
How Tuberculosis Is Spread
The TB bacteria is picked up in the air — by breathing air that an infected person sneezed or coughed into, or even just spoke into. If you breathe contaminated air, you may contract TB. You cannot get TB through:
- Drinking or eating after someone with TB
- Kissing someone with TB
- Using the same toothbrush
- Physical contact, like shaking a hand
- Coming into contact with clothing, sheets, towels, or toilet seats
Those at Risk for Tuberculosis
Anyone can get tuberculosis, it doesn’t discriminate between young and old, men or women. But there are some people who are at a greater risk of contracting tuberculosis than others:
- Senior citizens
- Anyone with a compromised immune system, such as people on chemotherapy or transplant medications and those with HIV or AIDS
- People with a poor diet
- People living in an unsanitary environment
- People who work or live with someone infected with tuberculosis
- People at risk of contracting TB or who have been exposed to the illness should have a skin test to detect it. Medications are also available to help keep tuberculosis from developing into a serious illness.
The Importance of Tuberculosis Treatment
Tuberculosis can be treated with a cocktail of different medications to combat the bacteria. Treatment consists of oral medications, but there are numerous pills that must often be taken several times throughout the day. Treatment may be needed for six months, or longer, to cure the disease.
Left untreated, tuberculosis can become a very serious, even fatal disease. The longer it goes without treatment or if medications aren’t taken as prescribed, the more difficult it is to treat, and the more deadly it can become.
The bottom line is simple: People exposed to tuberculosis should be tested, and anyone with a positive TB skin test needs immediate and prompt treatment to prevent spreading the disease and experiencing serious complications.