A disease steeped in folklore, tuberculosis (TB) no longer carries the fear and stigma it once did. The condition was so common in the late 19th century that park-like campuses, called ‘sanatoriums,’ sprung up around the United States and Europe as bucolic places infected people could go to recuperate from their illness. At that time, as many as one in four deaths in Europe were attributed to the disease. Today, the U.S. sees only about 10,000 cases of TB per year. The illness still requires treatment, and you need to be cautious when traveling abroad lest you acquire a case of it. Learn the facts about TB.
WHAT IS TUBERCULOSIS?
TB is an infectious disease of the lungs. It is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis). Left untreated, TB can cause permanent lung damage. Fortunately, medications can eradicate the TB bacterium and leave you cured.
WHAT CAUSES TUBERCULOSIS?
The M. tuberculosis bacterium is passed from person to person through contact with body fluids (droplets) containing the germ. You can get TB if someone coughs or sneezes on you. You can even get TB from the invisible ‘spray’ each person naturally emits while talking. You also can get TB if you touch an infected person’s nasal discharge or sputum and then transfer the germ from your fingers to your eye, nose or mouth.
RISK FACTORS FOR TUBERCULOSIS
Obviously, your risk of getting TB increases if you have contact with an infected person. You also can develop tuberculosis if you travel to a region where the disease is more common. Living in crowded and unclean conditions can increase your risk of getting TB, which is why the illness affects more people in places like India.
People, who have compromised immune systems, either from a disease like HIV/AIDS or from a medical procedure like chemotherapy for cancer, are at higher risk for contracting TB.
SYMPTOMS OF TUBERCULOSIS
A tuberculosis infection has two distinct stages: the primary stage and the active stage. The primary stage, when you’re first infected, has no symptoms. You can recover from the primary stage of TB without ever knowing you had it. After you’ve recovered, the TB infection may stay dormant in your system forever, or it may become active. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why the infection re-activates in some people
If the disease becomes active, it can produce any or all of the following symptoms:
- Cough that doesn’t clear up
- Usually, a productive cough (that is, a cough with mucus)
- Blood in the sputum from coughing
- Difficulty breathing
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
TREATMENT FOR TUBERCULOSIS
Your healthcare provider will diagnose TB using a variety of tests. Often these include:
- Chest X-ray
- Tuberculin skin test
- Culture of sputum
- Physical exam to hear lung sounds and assess lymph nodes
If you’re diagnosed with TB, you’ll take a combination of several medications to kill the M. tuberculosis germ. This drug therapy can last six months or more. It’s extremely important you take all the medications exactly as prescribed in order to cure yourself of TB. Remember the illness can be contagious even if you don’t have symptoms. Only lab testing can reveal if you are finally free from tuberculosis or not.
While there is a vaccine available to prevent TB, it is not widely used in the United States. Why? Because its effectiveness is questionable.
Your best bet for preventing tuberculosis is to minimize your risk factors. This includes avoiding contact with anyone you know has TB, washing your hands thoroughly after contact with anyone who has a persistent cough and telling your health care provider if you plan to travel to a foreign country with a high rate of tuberculosis.
If you exhibit any signs or symptoms of tuberculosis, prompt medical attention will help cure the illness and reduce your chance of spreading it to someone else.
LIVING WITH TUBERCULOSIS
Because the treatment can take months, support groups exist to help those living with TB. Look for support groups in your community or online to help you manage this contagious lung infection until it’s cured.