What do I need to know about TB?

Tuberculosis (TB) has been around a long time and was once the leading cause of death in the United States. However, in the last 20 years, the number of TB cases reported annually has dropped significantly, which is probably why many people are not as familiar with the disease as they once were.

So, what is TB? TB is a germ that is spread through the air by someone who has the TB disease. You cannot get TB by eating or drinking after someone. TB is spread when the person with TB sneezes, coughs, laughs or talks.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between a TB infection and TB disease.

If you have a TB infection, the TB germs are “sleeping” in your body but could “wake up” in the future. You are relatively healthy and don’t show any symptoms. You may have a positive result on your TB skin or blood test, but your chest X-ray is normal, and you are not contagious. If it’s determined that you have a TB infection, you will have to take TB pills for six months or longer.

If you have the TB disease, you have a serious illness that could kill you if left untreated. The TB germs have “woken up” and you are experiencing symptoms, such as a cough, fever, weight loss and night sweats. Your chest X-ray may be abnormal. You may also be contagious, meaning you could infect others when your germs spread through the air when you cough, laugh, sneeze or speak. If it’s determined that you have the TB disease, you will have to take TB pills for six months or longer, and if you’re contagious, you will be asked to stay home and not be around others until you are cleared to go out in public.

If you have been around someone that has TB, you have a cough for three weeks or longer (this is a cough that is much worse than a regular cough when you have a cold), you have chest pain and/or are coughing up blood, you should see your doctor immediately. TB can be treated, but it’s important that you determine if you’re contagious right away so that you can begin treatment and avoid putting others at risk.

For more information about TB, visit the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s website at www.scdhec.gov or the Centers for Disease Control’s website at www.cdc.gov/tb/.

Bill Kelly, MD, is an infectious disease physician with Greenville Health System.

Last reviewed 8/2018
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