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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.
TB is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This is a type of slow-growing bacteria. It thrives in parts of the body that are rich in blood and oxygen, such as the lungs.
People with latent TB don't have symptoms. Symptoms of active TB may include a cough that brings up a thick mucus, tiredness, weight loss, fever, a fast heartbeat, or swelling in the neck. In rare cases, you may have shortness of breath and chest pain.
A skin or blood test is used to check for TB. To find TB in the lungs, doctors may test lung mucus or do a chest X-ray. To find TB that's not in the lungs, doctors may check a tissue sample (biopsy) or do imaging tests.
TB is treated with antibiotics to kill the TB bacteria. How many antibiotics are used and how long you'll take them may depend on whether you have active or latent TB. TB can only be cured if you take all the doses of your medicine.
TB that's in the lungs can spread when a person who has active TB breathes out air that has the TB bacteria in it. Another person may breathe in the bacteria. Things like coughing can also release even more bacteria. TB that isn't in the lungs can't spread easily to others.
Some people are more likely than others to get TB. This includes people who have a weak immune system, have close contact with someone who has active TB, have poor access to health care, or abuse drugs or alcohol. People who travel or live where untreated TB is common are also at risk.
TB in the lungs is spread very easily. To avoid getting TB:
A TB vaccine is used in parts of the world where the risk of getting TB is higher. But it's almost never used in the United States.
If you have latent TB, you won't have symptoms. If the disease becomes active TB, you will most likely have symptoms.
Symptoms of active TB in the lungs include:
These symptoms start gradually and develop over weeks or months. You may have one or two mild symptoms and not know that you have the disease.
Symptoms of TB outside the lungs vary widely, depending on which part of the body is infected. For example, back pain can be a symptom of TB in the spine. Or your neck may get swollen when lymph nodes in the neck are infected.
Other conditions with symptoms similar to TB include pneumonia and lung cancer.
TB develops when you breathe TB bacteria into your lungs. The infection usually stays in the lungs. But the bacteria can move through the bloodstream to other parts of the body.
In a person who has a healthy immune system, the body usually fights the infection by walling off the bacteria into tiny capsules. (These are called tubercles.) This stage is called latent TB, and most people never go past it.
If a person's immune system can't stop the bacteria from growing, the TB becomes active. Of people who have latent TB, 5% to 10% (1 to 2 people out of 20) will develop active TB at some point in their lives.footnote 1
If the TB is active in the lungs, skipping doses of medicine can delay a cure and cause a relapse.
Without treatment, active TB can cause other serious health problems, such as respiratory damage.
Call your doctor now if you:
Follow up with your doctor if you:
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.
TB is treated with antibiotics to kill the TB bacteria. These medicines are given to everyone who has TB. This includes infants, children, and people who have a weakened immune system. These medicines can also be given during pregnancy.
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 many 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.
Home treatment for TB focuses on taking the medicines correctly, taking good care of yourself, and protecting others from infection.
Taking your medicines correctly reduces your risk of getting multidrug-resistant TB.
During treatment, eat healthy foods and get enough sleep and some exercise to help your body fight the infection.
Ask your doctor when it's safe for you to exercise. When you can go outside, walking is a good way to get exercise. Start slowly if you haven't been active. Try to walk for a few minutes. Slowly increase your time as you feel stronger. Try to walk as often as you can.
If you are losing too much weight, eat balanced meals with enough protein and calories to help you keep weight on. If you need help, talk with a registered dietitian.
Until you've been on antibiotics for about 2 weeks, you can easily spread the disease to others.
Your doctor or health department can help you find a counselor or social worker to help you cope with your feelings. If you can't afford counseling or treatment, there may be places that offer free or less costly help.
CitationsPasipanodya J, et al. (2015). Tuberculosis and other mycobacterial diseases. In ET Bope et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2015, pp. 411–417. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Current as of: June 13, 2023
Author: Healthwise StaffClinical Review Board: All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.
Current as of: June 13, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board: All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.
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