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Tuberculosis: TB basics, symptoms and treatment

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, or just TB, is a bacterial infection spread by a person breathing in droplets from an infected person's cough or sneezes.

TB is a serious condition, most commonly affecting the lungs, which can be cured with treatment.

TB used to be more common the UK before antibiotics were introduced.

There are around 8,000 TB cases a year in the UK. Most of these are among people born abroad or among ethnic minority communities.

Most people who are exposed to TB never develop symptoms, since the bacteria can live in an inactive form in the body, but if the immune system weakens, such as in people with HIV or elderly adults, TB bacteria can become active. In their active state, TB bacteria cause death of tissue in the organs they infect.

Active TB disease can be fatal if left untreated.

Because the bacteria that cause tuberculosis are transmitted through the air, the disease can be quite contagious. But it's nearly impossible to catch TB by a single, social contact with an infected person. To be at risk of being infected, you must be exposed to TB bacteria constantly, by living or working in close quarters with someone who has the active disease. Even then, because the bacteria generally stay latent (inactive) after they invade the body, only 10% of people infected with TB will ever have the active disease. The remaining 90% have what's called latent TB infection: they show no signs of infection and won't be able to spread the disease to others.

These latent infections can eventually become active, though, so even people without symptoms should receive medical treatment. Medication can help get rid of the inactive bacteria before they become active.
Once a widespread disease, TB became relatively rare with the help of antibiotics developed in the 1950s. The disease has since resurfaced in a potent new form called multidrug-resistant TB. Today, this new and dangerous form of TB -- resistant to some of the commonly used drug treatments -- has created a public health crisis in many large cities worldwide. If you have TB - in its active or dormant state - seek medical treatment.

What are the symptoms of TB?

You will generally have no symptoms if you are infected with tuberculosis (TB), unless you have active TB disease. In fact, you may not even be aware that you have a latent TB infection until it's revealed through a skin test, perhaps during a routine check-up.

If you do have active TB disease, you may have these symptoms:

  • Overall sensation of feeling unwell.
  • Cough, initially with yellow or green mucus, and possibly with bloody sputum later in the disease.
  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Weight loss.
  • Fever.
  • Night sweats.
  • Pain in the chest, back or kidneys, or perhaps in all three.


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