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Facts About...


What is it?

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by bacteria. It most commonly affects the lungs but can also affect bones, kidneys, liver, brain, joints, intestines, skin, lymph nodes and reproductive organs.

How is it spread?

When a person who is sick with TB disease (active TB) of the lung or throat coughs, sneezes or speaks, the TB germs are sent into the air. These germs can stay in the air for several hours, especially in enclosed spaces. Persons breathing in air containing TB germs can inhale the bacteria and become infected. However, TB is not easy to catch. It usually takes several hours of close contact with a person who has active TB to be infected with the bacteria.

The TB bacteria enter the lungs and usually stay there. The body’s immune system fights the bacteria by building a wall to stop them from spreading. If the body is able to build this wall, the person will have what is called latent TB infection (LTBI). See Facts About…Latent Tuberculosis Infection. People with LTBI do not feel sick and cannot spread the bacteria to others. About 10% of people with LTBI will develop TB disease. This may be due to a weakened immune system, aging, poor nutrition, a serious illness, diabetes, drug or alcohol abuse, or HIV infection.

What do I look for?

People with TB disease in their lungs may cough a lot, cough up mucus or blood, and have chest pain when they cough or breathe. Other symptoms may include fever, sweats at night, weight loss, loss of appetite, and tiredness. When TB spreads to other parts of the body, other symptoms may also occur. Further tests such as a chest X-ray, blood tests and checking your sputum will need to be done to diagnose active TB disease. You may be sent to an infectious diseases doctor/specialist for follow up.

How is it treated?

People with active TB disease begin treatment by taking at least 4 different medications (antibiotics). The pills can cure TB disease if they are taken every day for 6 months or longer. Sometimes, the TB bacteria are “resistant” to the medication. This means that the medication is not killing the TB bacteria. In this case, alternative medications are added and the treatment will take longer. It is important to be closely monitored by your doctor to make sure the medication is working.

Medication to treat TB infection or disease is available free from the Durham Region Health Department through 5 local pharmacies. A Health Department nurse will be available to monitor and support all people with active TB disease. The possible side effects of taking TB medications should be discussed with the nurse, pharmacist and/or doctor.

How can I protect myself?

March 2015