Tuberculosis: Symptoms, Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis is a deadly infectious airborne disease that affects the lungs. It is the second biggest killer globally. In 2015 alone, about 1.8 million people died from tuberculosis.

TB is among the top 3 major causes of death for women aged 15 to 44. TB is an airborne pathogen, the bacteria that cause TB can spread through the air from person to person.

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A tuberculosis epidemic attacked Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the German microbiologist Robert Koch discovered the microbial causes of tuberculosis in 1882.

After Koch’s discovery, the development of vaccines and effective drug treatment led to the belief that the disease was almost defeated. Indeed, at one point, the United Nations, predicted that tuberculosis (TB) would be eliminated globally by 2025.

The World Health Organization estimates that 9 million people yearly get sick with TB, with 3 million of these missed by health systems.

Symptoms of Tuberculosis

There are two main kinds of tuberculosis infection:

Latent Tuberculosis: In this type, the bacteria remain in the body in an inactive state. They cause no symptoms and are not contagious, but they can become active.

Active tuberculosis: In this type, the bacteria cause symptoms and can be passed to others.

Signs and symptoms of active TB include:

  • Coughing that lasts three or more weeks
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain, or pain with breathing or coughing
  • Night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetitie
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Chills

Tuberculosis can also affect other parts of your body, including your kidneys, spine or brain. When TB occurs outside your lungs, signs and symptoms vary according to the organs involved. For example, tuberculosis of the spine may give you back pain, and tuberculosis in your kidneys might cause blood in your urine.

According to researchers, about one-third of the world’s population is believed to have latent TB. There is a 10 percent chance of latent TB becoming active, but this risk is much higher in people who have weak immune systems, such as people living with HIV, people who smoke, and people who suffer from malnutrition.

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TB affects all age groups and all parts of the world. However, the disease mostly affects young adults and people living in developing countries. In 2012, 80 percent of reported TB cases occurred in just 22 countries.

Causes of Tuberculosis

The bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes TB. It is spread through the air when a person with TB whose lungs are affected sneezes, coughs, spits, laughs, or talks.

TB is highly contagious, but it is not easy to catch. The chances of catching TB from someone you live or work with are much higher than from a stranger. Most people with active TB who have been properly treated for at least 2 weeks are no longer contagious.

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Since antibiotics began to be used to fight TB, some strains have become resistant to drugs. Multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) arises when an antibiotic is unable to kill all of the bacteria, with the surviving bacteria developing resistance to that antibiotic.

MDR-TB is curable only with the use of very specific anti-TB drugs, which are often restricted or not readily available. In 2012, around 450,000 people developed MDR-TB.

Diagnosis of tuberculosis

A doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to the lungs and check for swelling in the lymph nodes when diagnosing TB. The doctor will also ask about symptoms and medical history. The most common diagnostic test for TB is a skin test, where a small injection of PPD tuberculin, an extract of the TB bacterium, is made just below inside the forearm.

The injection site should be checked after 2-3 days, and, if a hard, red bump has swollen up to a specific size, then it is possible that TB is present. The skin test is not 100 percent accurate and has been known to give incorrect positive and negative results.

However, blood tests, chest X-rays, and sputum tests are other tests that are available to correctly diagnose TB.

Treatments for tuberculosis

Most TB cases can be cured with the right medication correctly administered. The precise type and length of antibiotic treatment depend on a person’s age, general wellbeing, potential resistance to drugs, and the location of infection.

People with latent TB may need just one kind of TB antibiotics, whereas people with active TB especially MDR-TB will often require a prescription of multiple drugs.

Antibiotics are usually needed to be taken for a relatively long time. The standard length of time for a course of TB antibiotics is about 6 months.

TB medication can be toxic to the liver. Side effects are uncommon, when they do occur, they can be quite serious. Potential side effects include:

Ensure that any course of treatment is fully completed, even if the TB symptoms have gone away. Any bacteria that have survived the treatment could become resistant to the medication that has been prescribed and could lead to developing MDR-TB in the future.

Prevention of Tuberculosis

A few general measures can be taken to prevent the spread of active TB.

If you or anyone you know has TB, school, work, or other public places should be avoided until the course of your treatment is over. Also sleeping in the same room as someone who doesn’t have the disease to avoid infecting them.

Wearing a mask, covering the mouth, and ventilating rooms can also limit the spread of bacteria.

TB vaccination

In some countries, BCG injections are given to children to vaccinate them against tuberculosis. It is not recommended for general use in the U.S. because it is not effective in adults, and it can adversely influence the results of skin testing diagnoses.

Risk factors

People with weak immune systems are mostly at risk of developing active tuberculosis. For instance, HIV suppresses the immune system, making it harder for the body to control TB bacteria.

Tobacco use has also been found to increase the chances of developing active TB. About 8 percent of TB cases worldwide are related to smoking.

People with the following conditions have an increased risk:

Also, people who are undergoing cancer therapy and those who abuse drugs are more at risk.

Travel to certain countries where TB is more common increases the of risk of getting infected.

Countries with higher tuberculosis rates

The following countries have the highest TB rates, worldwide:

  • Africa – particularly West African and sub-Saharan Africa
  • Afghanistan
  • Southeast Asia: including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia
  • China
  • Russia
  • South America
  • Western Pacific region – including the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam


If tuberculosis is left untreated, the result can be fatal. Although it mostly affects the lungs, it can also spread through the blood, causing complications, such as:

  • Heart disorders: this is rare
  • Spinal pain
  • Meningitis
  • Joint damage
  • Damage to the liver or kidneys


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