Tuberculosis (TB) is an infection. TB may be either active or latent. Latent forms can stay in your body and not make you sick. Latent TB may become active if you are ill, have a weakened immune system or for no known reason.
TB infection most is most common in the lungs, but it can occur in other places in the body.
TB is a highly contagious disease caused by a specific bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis or Mycobacterium bovis). It is transmitted by air from one person to another. This can happen during coughing, sneezing or talking. Once airborne, the bacteria can be breathed in by other people causing exposure or active infection. You can only pass the infection to other people if you have active TB.
Factors that may increase your chance of TB exposure include:
- Close contact with a person infected with active TB
- Living in or traveling to an area where there are high rates of TB
- Working in certain occupations, such as farming, funeral homes, and healthcare
- Living or working in crowded, indoor conditions, such as prisons, hospitals, homeless shelters, or nursing homes
Factors that increase your chance of getting active TB after exposure:
- Chronic diseases that weaken the immune system:
- HIV infection
- Poorly controlled diabetes
- Severe kidney disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Silicosis or other occupational lung diseases
- Active or passive smoking
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Low socioeconomic status
- Specific age groups — infants, young children and elderly people are more susceptible
- Certain medications that weaken or suppress the immune system, such as chemotherapy drugs that treat cancer
Latent TB does not cause symptoms. Once symptoms appear, the disease becomes active. Active TB may cause:
- Severe cough that lasts more than two weeks
- Coughing up blood and mucus
- Pain in the chest
- Weakness or fatigue
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
- Loss of appetite
Active or latent TB may be found during a routine check-up. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, including if you think you were exposed to TB. A physical exam will be done. Tests that can detect the disease include:
- Blood tests
- Skin test (PPD or Mantoux test)
If you have symptoms that indicate active TB, your doctor may do the following tests:
- Chest X-ray
- Samples of your sputum
- Fluid or tissue tests, especially if the disease is not in the lungs
Medication can keep TB from becoming active. It can also help cure active TB. It is very important that you take all the medication exactly as prescribed. Take all the medication, even if the symptoms go away. If you do not finish your medication, you may relapse or develop drug-resistant TB. This form is very difficult to cure.
For Latent TB
Inactive (latent) TB will have a positive skin test but you will have no symptoms. You will need to take medication to prevent active TB. You may need to take this medication for a 3-9 month period. Again, it is important to take all the medication as recommended to prevent drug-resistant TB.
For Active TB
Your doctor will give you a combination of drugs. Continue with medication until your doctor tells you to stop. Treatment for active TB typically lasts six months or longer.
You will need to take special steps to prevent spreading TB to others. You may be asked to stay home or stay away from crowded public places. Make sure to cover your mouth whenever you cough. You can resume your normal activities after your doctor says that you are no longer infectious.
To help reduce your chance of TB exposure, take these steps:
- Follow occupational guidelines at your work place
- Try to avoid contact with people who have active TB
- Limit travel to areas with high rates of TB
If you have been exposed to TB, take these steps to prevent it from becoming active:
- Get regular skin testing.
- Take all antibiotic medication.
- Manage any chronic diseases as directed by your doctor.
- If you smoke, find out the best ways you can quit.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. That is two drinks per day for men, and one per day for women.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Talk with your doctor about the TB vaccine. It is not often used in the United States because the amount of protection is unclear.
If you have active TB, take these steps to protect others from infection:
- Stay at home
- Circulate air in your rooms
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Wash your hands frequently, especially after coughing or sneezing
- Consider wearing a surgical mask
Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.