Tuberculosis

Overview

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (say: too-burr-cue-low-sis), also called TB, is an infection caused by bacteria. Tuberculosis usually affects the lungs, but it can spread to the joints, bladder, spine, brain and other parts of the body.

There are 2 types of TB:

  • Latent or Inactive TB: The bacteria are present in your body but are not making you sick or contagious; you are not able to spread the disease.

  • Active TB: The bacteria are present and are causing symptoms; you may be able to spread the disease.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of tuberculosis?

You won’t have any symptoms of tuberculosis unless you have active TB. The symptoms of active TB include:

If TB affects your joints, you may develop pain that feels like arthritis. If TB affects your bladder, it may hurt to go to the bathroom and there may be blood in your urine. TB of the spine can cause back pain and leg paralysis. TB of the brain can cause headaches, nausea and brain damage (if left untreated).

  • Cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer, sometimes bloody

  • Chest pain

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • Unintended weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Chills and night sweats

Diagnosis & Tests

How can my doctor check for tuberculosis?

The most commonly used method to check for tuberculosis is the PPD skin test. A PPD skin test is also called a Mantoux test. If you have a positive PPD, it means you have been exposed to a person who has tuberculosis and you have been infected with the bacteria that cause the disease.

If your PPD skin test is positive, you will likely have a chest X-ray and a physical exam to find out whether you have active TB and are currently contagious and able to spread the disease to other people.

It usually takes only a few days to tell whether you’re contagious. Most people with a positive skin test are not contagious.

If I have a positive PPD test, do I have active tuberculosis?

Usually not. A person can be infected with the bacteria that cause tuberculosis but not actually have active tuberculosis. Of the people who are infected with the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, only a few (about 10%) go on to develop active TB.

Healthy people who get infected with the tuberculosis bacteria are often able to fight off the infection and do not develop active TB. The bacteria are dormant (inactive) in their lungs. If the body is not able to contain the infection and the bacteria continue to grow, active tuberculosis develops.

Would I know if I developed active tuberculosis?

There is a slight chance you might not know that you have developed active tuberculosis. Tuberculosis bacteria can grow in your body without making you feel sick. However, most people who have active tuberculosis experience symptoms.

If you develop active tuberculosis, you will need to be monitored medically (regular checkups and probably some chest X-rays) for the rest of your life to make sure you stay free of the tuberculosis disease, even after you have taken the full course of tuberculosis medicine.

Treatment

How is tuberculosis treated?

Tuberculosis is treated with antibiotic medicine. The medicine(s) your doctor recommends will depend on your age, your health, whether your TB is active or latent, and whether your TB is drug resistant (meaning that certain medicines won’t work on it).

You will need to take your TB medicine(s) for 6-9 months. Your doctor will tell you exactly how and when to take your medicine, and for how long. It is very important that you follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. Keep your medicine in a place where you will always see it. Take it at the same time every day. Don’t skip doses or stop taking your medicine. This could make your TB harder to treat.

What medicines are used to treat tuberculosis?

Common medicines used to treat tuberculosis include the following:

Depending on your doctor’s recommendations, you may take 1 or more of these medicines. These medicines do not usually cause side effects. However, TB drugs can damage your liver. See the box below for a list of serious side effects.

Don’t drink alcohol or take acetaminophen (one brand name: Tylenol) while taking TB drugs. Alcohol and acetaminophen can increase the risk of liver problems. Always check with your doctor before you take any other medicine because some drugs interact with TB drugs and can cause side effects.

While taking these medicines, your doctor may want to monitor you every month. For example, you may need to visit your doctor for tests, to get another prescription, and to check for any side effects or problems.

  • Isoniazid

  • Rifampin

  • Ethambutol

  • Pyrazinamide

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • How did I get tuberculosis?

  • I work at a hospital. Should I tell my manager that I may have gotten tuberculosis at work?

  • What treatment is best for me?

  • Will I develop active tuberculosis?

  • If my symptoms get worse, when should I call my doctor?

  • Is it safe for me to be around my family?

  • Is there anything I can take to make my cough go away?

  • I’m on other medicines. What medicines are safe to take with my tuberculosis medicines?

  • How often will I need to see my doctor?

  • Will my tuberculosis ever be cured?

Although side effects from tuberculosis medicine are not common, they can be serious. Call your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Abdominal pain, tenderness or soreness

  • Blurry vision or color-blindness

  • Dark (coffee-colored) urine

  • Fever that lasts 3 days or longer

  • Jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)