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Learning About Tuberculosis (TB)

The lungs

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious disease caused by a type of bacteria that is spread through the air. TB is easily spread from person to person through coughs or sneezes. TB usually occurs in the lungs. But it can spread to other parts of the body.

TB is either active or latent.

  • Active TB means that the TB bacteria are growing and causing symptoms. If your lungs are infected with active TB, it's easy to spread the disease to others.
  • Latent TB means that you have the TB bacteria in your body, but your body's defences (immune system) are keeping it from turning into active TB. This means that you don't have any symptoms of TB right now and can't spread the disease to others. If you have latent TB, it can become active TB.

What are the symptoms of active TB?

Symptoms of active TB start gradually and develop over weeks or months. You may:

  • Cough.
  • Lose your appetite and lose weight.
  • Have night sweats.
  • Have a fever.
  • Have chills.
  • Feel tired and weak.

How is it diagnosed?

Doctors usually find latent TB by doing a tuberculin skin test. A doctor or nurse will inject TB antigens under your skin. If you have TB bacteria in your body, within 2 days you will get a red bump where the needle went into your skin. The test can't tell when you became infected with TB or if it can be spread to others. A blood test also can be done to look for TB.

To find TB in the lungs, doctors test a sample of mucus from the lungs to look for TB bacteria. Doctors sometimes do other tests or take a chest X-ray to help find TB in the lungs.

To find TB that's not in the lungs, doctors may take a tissue sample (biopsy) or do imaging tests.

How is it treated?

TB is treated with antibiotics to kill the TB bacteria. These medicines are given to everyone who has TB. This includes infants, children, pregnant women, and people who have a weakened immune system.

TB can only be cured if you take all the doses of your medicine. If you miss doses, or if you stop taking your medicine too soon, your treatment may not work. Or it may have to go on longer.

A health professional may watch you take your medicine. This is called directly observed therapy (DOT). DOT is done to help make sure that you don't miss a dose and that all the bacteria are killed.

Surgery is rarely used to treat TB. But it may be used in severe or drug-resistant TB.

If you have latent TB, you may be treated with one or more antibiotics for 3 to 9 months.

The first phase of treatment for active TB lasts 2 months. During this phase, you take several different medicines. The second phase of treatment can last 4 to 7 months or longer. During this phase, the number of medicines you take may be reduced.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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