Tuberculosis Isn’t Just History—It’s a Threat Now

If you’re even a casual student of history, you’ve likely learned something about tuberculosis. It goes back to ancient times. Tuberculosis (TB) bacteria have been found in Egyptian mummies.

Today’s reality is that one-third of the planet’s population is infected with the TB bacteria. Tuberculosis bacteria can be in a person but not become TB disease. When a person has the bacteria but is not sick, that’s known as latent TB infection. The immune systems of most people who are exposed to the bacteria are able to fight it and stop the bacteria from growing.

If the bacteria become active and multiply in the body in enough quantities that the immune system can’t stop the growth, that becomes TB disease. Once TB disease develops, the disease becomes highly contagious. If untreated, TB disease can be fatal.

In 2015, world wide there were 1.8 million TB-related deaths, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2015 in the U.S. about 9,500 cases of TB disease were reported — that’s like everyone in the community of Elkhorn, Wisc., having TB. The number of American cases of TB disease in 2015 actually increased from 2014.

TB can spread to other people through the air when someone with the disease coughs, sneezes or even speaks. The bacteria ride on tiny droplets into the air and can survive for several hours.

 

What Are the Signs of Tuberculosis?

TB bacteria can impact any part of the body, but they usually attack the lungs. When that happens, symptoms of TB disease can include:

  • A bad cough that lasts three weeks or longer.
  • Pain in the chest.
  • Coughing up blood or phlegm.

Symptoms can also include:

  • Weakness or fatigue.
  • Weight loss.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Chills.
  • Fever.
  • Night sweats.

If the TB bacteria is in other parts of the body, the symptoms can be different.

If you’ve been around someone who has tuberculosis or have concerns about TB, see your health care provider. Without appropriate diagnosis and treatment, TB disease can develop and be fatal.

 

Who’s at Risk for Tuberculosis?

You have a higher risk for a TB bacteria infection if you:

  • Have spent time with a person with TB disease.
  • Have traveled to a location where TB disease is common.
  • Live or work where TB disease is more common, such as a homeless shelter, prison/jail or long-term care facility.
  • Ask a health care worker with patients who are at high risk for TB disease.

If you become infected, your risk for getting TB disease is higher if you:

  • Have HIV infection or another health problem that makes it hard for you to fight diseases.
  • Smoke cigarettes or abuse alcohol and/or drugs.
  • Were not correctly treated for latent TB infection or TB disease in the past.

Parents take note: A child under age 5 who is exposed to the TB bacteria also has a higher risk for developing TB disease.

 

What’s the Treatment for Tuberculosis?

People with latent TB infection won’t show symptoms and won’t spread the bacteria. However, if TB bacteria become active in the body, TB disease can develop. To stop the development of TB disease, people with latent TB infection are often treated with medications that can stop the disease from developing.

Successful drug treatment for latent TB infection or TB disease can take for up to nine months.

When a diagnosis of tuberculosis is made, a health care professional can review the best treatment options.

If questions remain after a serious diagnosis such as tuberculosis, a second opinion can provide you with additional peace of mind.

Learn more about tuberculosis from the CDC

Meet the Author

Ashley Marie Warmoth, DO is a family medicine physician at Aurora Health Center in Lake Geneva, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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