What Is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs. It can be completely cured with the right treatment whch typically consists of medication in a pill form containing a mix of antibiotics.
Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs. It can be completely cured with the right treatment whch typically consists of medication in a pill form containing a mix of antibiotics.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs. Some people can have the tuberculosis bacteria in their body and never develop symptoms. Others can experience tuberculosis and fall seriously ill. Luckily, most people can be cured of TB with the right medical treatment.

Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. TB is a bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs. It spreads through the air when people cough, sneeze, or spit. 

You can contract the tuberculosis bacteria, but not develop the disease. This is called latent TB. If you carry the bacteria and develop tuberculosis disease, you have active TB. Latent TB always has the potential to develop into active TB, which can be fatal if not treated.  

If contracted, you may experience symptoms such as:

About 5-10% of people who have tuberculosis will develop symptoms at some point in their lives. Others may have the TB bacteria in their body but will never develop symptoms. Most of the time, people who have compromised immune systems or are experiencing HIV infection, cancer, or diabetes are at higher risk of contracting tuberculosis.

Diagnosis for tuberculosis

Only a licensed healthcare professional can diagnose tuberculosis. The doctor will start by doing a physical examination and completing tests like:

  • Using a stethoscope to listen to your lungs.
  • Checking the lymph nodes in your neck, which help fight infection.
  • Doing a skin test, where the doctor injects a small amount of fluid in your arm and monitors the skin for a reaction (bump or redness).
  • Doing a blood test, which is used to measure how your immune system reacts to the germs that cause TB.
  • Doing a chest X-ray or computerized tomography (CT) scan to look for physical indicators of the infection. 

A health care provider will interview you to determine if you have been exposed to TB. The skin test and blood test can determine if you have the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, but not whether you have active tuberculosis disease. The tests can help determine if TB is active in your body and which type of TB you have.

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Treatments for tuberculosis

Tuberculosis (TB) can be completely cured with the right treatment. Your doctor and health care team will be there to help you every step of the way. The key to a successful recovery is following the treatment as prescribed and communicating any questions and concerns with your doctor.

Medications

Patients with latent tuberculosis do not show symptoms and are not contagious. However, they are still treated to prevent the bacteria from developing into active TB. Latent TB is commonly treated with the antibiotic isoniazid for six months or longer.

Many people undergo treatment for active TB for a period of at least six months. During this time, patients take medicine in the form of a pill. The medicine is a mix of antibiotics called:

However, some tuberculosis is resistant to these medications, making them less effective in treating TB. This is called drug-resistant TB {Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Tuberculosis (TB).”}. If this is the case for you, your doctor may recommend alternative and more extensive treatment. Some alternative antibiotic medicines the doctor may prescribe to treat drug-resistant TB include:

For drug-resistant TB, your doctor may recommend taking these alternative medications for a period of 20 to 30 months. You may also be admitted to the hospital for an extended stay under supervision by medical professionals. Drug-resistant TB is complicated to treat, and not all patients will undergo the same treatment.

If you have a weakened immune system, or are experiencing another condition like HIV or cancer, your medical team may take special precautions with your treatment because you are at a higher risk of active TB infection and possible death. 

Despite these challenges, tuberculosis is considered treatable and curable.

Possible complications and side effects

If you have tuberculosis (TB), you might feel tempted to stop treatment when you start feeling better. It is very important to finish the medicine prescribed by your doctor even if your symptoms improve or go away. If treatment is not completed, there is a chance that TB may reoccur, and you could become seriously ill.

There are possible complications from the medications used to treat TB. You might experience side effects like:

Other medications may have different side effects. Consult your health care provider about possible complications of any medications you might take for tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is preventable and curable if diagnosed and treated properly. Talk to your doctor if you think you have been exposed to TB or are experiencing symptoms.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/9/2021
References
American Lung Association: "Tuberculosis (TB)."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Tuberculosis (TB)."

The Truth About TB: "About the treatment."

World Health Organization: "Tuberculosis."