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Be Aware: Identification and Prevention of Tuberculosis

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 8:59 AM

With the recent reports of tuberculosis cases within the United States, now is the time to get informed. Tuberculosis (abbreviated as TB) is an infectious bacteria that spreads through droplets released into the air often by coughing, sneezing or spitting. Despite this, it's not easy to catch, and the infection occurs after a long period of exposure.

The following individuals are most at risk when exposed to TB:

  • Children under 5
  • Elderly people
  • People with weakened immune systems from other diseases (particularly HIV) or previous TB infection
  • Healthcare workers who are in contact with potentially infected patients
  • Those who have travelled to countries in which the bacteria is active
  • Individuals who abuse substances

Dr. Stephen Schrantz, MD, at NorthShore discusses the two forms of tuberculosis, and what to do if you believe you have been infected.

Latent TB: This form of TB does not have any symptoms, as the infection is not yet active. While not contagious, it has the potential to progress to an active state. Those who have come in contact with someone with tuberculosis should get checked by a doctor in order to detect latent TB, which can remain in the body for several years if it goes unnoticed or untreated.

Active TB: Symptoms for active TB can occur within 2 to 3 weeks, or months after an individual is exposed to the infectious bacteria. Though most commonly associated with lung disease, it is possible for tuberculosis to infection other organs, so symptoms may vary. Some of the most common ones are:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Persistent cough for 3 or more weeks
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood or sputum (mucus)

Tuberculosis can be deadly when left untreated, and requires a prolonged treatment program in order to fully restore the patient to good health. Those who believe they have come in contact with the bacteria should seek medical attention immediately. Physicians commonly perform a physical examination to look for swelling in areas such as the lymph nodes, as well as breathing problems. Depending on the type of TB, there are also blood tests, imaging tests, and skin tests that can determine a patient's status.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are potentially millions of people in the United States who have a latent tuberculosis infection; therefore, it's very important for anyone who has been in contact with someone who has the disease to contact your doctor or a state TB control office.