What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (also known as TB) is a serious and chronic condition that affects the lungs. It can also affect other areas such as the spine, brain, kidneys, and intestines. It is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. About 11,500 people in the United States get TB every year.


How does TB spread? TB spreads when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks and infected droplets are released into the air which other people are exposed to. Once a person has been infected, they will usually experience chest pain, chills, fever, coughing which may have blood in it, and fatigue. It is possible for some people to be infected with TB and not experience any symptoms or be contagious. This means the infection is dormant or asleep in the body. TB can wake up though and become active which will then cause a person to have symptoms and become contagious.

People who are at risk for catching TB are those who have a weak immune system (such as from HIV), live in unsanitary conditions, abuse alcohol or drugs, or work with people who have TB. If TB is left untreated, it can become very serious and even terminal.

TB can either be latent or active. When TB in latent, you have the TB infection, but the bacteria is inactive in your body and causes no symptoms. Latent TB is not contagious. However, it can become active later on. Therefore, it is important to get treatment even when you have latent TB in order to prevent spreading TB in general. It is estimated that about two billion people have latent TB.

When TB is active TB, a person gets very sick, experiences all the symptoms, and is capable of spreading the infection to others. This can happen either in the first few weeks after developing the infection or it might occur years later.

Signs and symptoms of active TB include coughing that lasts three or more weeks, coughing up blood, chest pain, or pain with breathing or coughing, unintentional weight loss, fatigue, fever, night sweats, chills, or loss of appetite.

Risk factors for developing TB include living in crowded or unsanitary conditions, being homeless, being around someone with TB, being an alcoholic or drug user, having HIV or another medical condition that weakens the immune system.

TB treatment may include taking medication for nine months to kill the TB bacteria and prevent the active disease in people with latent TB. It may also include taking several medications for six months to a year to kill the TB bacteria in people with active TB and prevent the disease from spreading.