Understanding TB: Symptoms, Testing and Treatment

There are many myths surrounding Tuberculosis, commonly referred to as TB. The disease is on the decline in the United States; however there were still more than 9,588 new TB cases identified in the US with 51% of those occurring in California, Florida, New York and Texas. Let’s review the facts.
First, it is important to know what TB actually is. TB is not a virus like the flu, but rather is treated like a bacterial illness with antibiotics. People sick with TB much of the time have a cough, because it is spread by air into the lungs, but TB can also cause bone infection, kidney infection and brain infection. It is very serious and highly contagious.
Second, it is important to know that not all people who get infected with TB become sick. There are two types of TB: latent and active. Someone who has Latent TB does not suffer any of the symptoms. The good news is that they cannot spread TB infection to others. In some people, the TB bacteria overpower the immune system and begin to multiply. These people have what is called Active TB. Symptoms can include: unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, night sweats, fever, fatigue, chills. If the TB is in the lungs, symptoms may include coughing for 3 weeks or longer, coughing up blood and chest pain. Other symptoms depend on the part of the body that is infected.
Third, it is important to know what to do if you have been exposed. You may be exposed if you spend time with someone with TB disease of the lungs or throat. Only by breathing in TB germs can you get infected. Infection is not transmittable through clothing, sharing food or personal items, handshakes, or shared contact with surfaces. If you know you have been exposed, you should go to your doctor or health department for tests.
How do we test for TB? There are two tests that can be used to help detect TB infection: a skin test or a special TB blood test. The skin test is used most often. A small needle is used to put some testing material, called tuberculin, under the skin. In 2-3 days, you return to the health care worker who will check to see if there is a reaction to the test. In some cases, a special TB blood test is given to test for TB infection. This blood test measures how a person’s immune system reacts to the germs that cause TB.
To tell if someone has TB disease, other tests such as chest x-ray and a sample of sputum (phlegm that is coughed up from deep in the lungs) may be needed. Please note: If you have ever had a “positive” reaction to a TB skin test or if you have been treated with TB drugs in the past, tell your health care worker.
Finally, it is important to know that treatment is available. If you have latent TB infection, you may need medicine to prevent getting TB disease later. Usually, only one drug is needed to treat latent TB infection. It is important that you take your medicine exactly as you are told. If you stop taking the drugs too soon, you can become sick again. If you do not take the drugs correctly, the germs that are still alive may become difficult to treat with those drugs.
Protect your family and friends from TB: Get tested and take all your TB drugs!
Cheryl Thompson, M.D. is a family medicine physician and Assistant Medical Director at Vista Community Clinic. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 760-631-5000. For more information on TB please visit www.cdc.gov.