Tuberculosis is a contagious bacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs and is spread from person to person via airborne droplets. You can become infected by inhaling these droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks, sings, or laughs.
Nearly one-third of the world's population is infected with tuberculosis. Each year, 9 million will become sick, and 2 million will die. In the United States, it is less common, but it's on the rise, especially among minorities and foreign-born people.
Anyone can get tuberculosis, but your risk increases if you have close or prolonged contact with an infected person, people with HIV, or people from countries where there is a high rate of tuberculosis. It is also more common among the homeless, IV drug users, alcoholics, and people who live in institutions such as nursing homes and prisons.
Tuberculosis can remain inactive in your body, a condition known as "latent" tuberculosis. Without preventive treatment, it can lead to active, contagious disease. Symptoms include:
- A cough that lasts 4-6 weeks
- Coughing up blood
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
- Weakness and unusual tiredness
Tuberculosis can be diagnosed two ways. The first is a blood test called Quantiferon-TB. Results are generally available within several days. The second is the tuberculin skin test, which takes 48-72 hours.
There is a tuberculosis vaccination, but it is not used in the United States because of the low incidence of the disease here. If you discover you have latent tuberculosis, you can control the disease with several months of antibiotics. It's important to stay in touch with your doctor during treatment to make sure your blood and liver function remains normal.
Active tuberculosis is also treated with antibiotics, based on the culture and sensitivity of the bacteria. Often, more than one drug is needed. You must take them according to a strict schedule. You will also likely be isolated from other people until you are non-contagious. This can take several weeks.
If you have active or latent tuberculosis, keep your medical appointments and take medications exactly as prescribed. Also, remember that you can be infected with tuberculosis more than once in your life. So pay attention to symptoms.
For more information, please visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/tb