Tuberculosis (TB)

What is TB?

TB is a contagious disease caused by TB germs. TB usually attacks the lungs but can affect any part of the body. TB has been around for centuries.

TB germs become active when the body’s immune system can’t stop the germs from growing. The active TB germs begin to grow and cause damage to the body. Symptoms of TB disease are:

  • Cough (lasting longer than 3 weeks)
  • Fever/chills/night sweats
  • Feeling tired
  • Unexplained weight loss/loss of appetite

If the TB disease is in another part of the body, the symptoms will depend on where the TB is growing (e.g. swollen lymph node or joint pain).

How is TB infection different from active TB disease?

A person can have TB infection without having active TB disease. With non-active TB infection, the TB germs are “asleep”. As a result, the person doesn’t feel sick and can’t spread the infection.
With active TB disease, the germs are “awake” and spreading through the body. The person feels sick and can spread the disease to other people.

How is it spread?

TB is spread from person to person through the air (through a cough or sneeze). However, it is not highly contagious. Close, prolonged or regular contact with someone who is sick with TB disease is needed to spread this disease.

Is there a test for TB?

The tuberculin skin test (TST) can help detect the presence of tuberculin bacillum in a person by testing his or her skin’s sensitivity to the test. The TST is given into the skin of the inner forearm using a fine needle. A doctor or nurse must read it 48 to 72 hours later.

If there’s swelling and induration (hardening of the skin) larger than 10 mm at the site of injection, it means that the person has been in contact with the tuberculosis bacillum. This contact could be recent or date back many years, so it’s not necessarily a sign of an active case of TB. However, it’s important to see a doctor for additional investigation. Persons with significant reaction should have a complete tuberculosis assessment.

Are there side effects to the TB test?

There are no side effects. Some people who are highly sensitive may have a large, swollen area that may be itchy and tender for up to a couple of months. Occasionally, people may have a severe reaction causing blistering or ulceration.

Medications for tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is treatable and preventable. It no longer requires long periods in a hospital. The medications used in the treatment of tuberculosis are effective, simple to take and usually well tolerated. The medications ordered by your physician will be supplied free of charge by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit.

To be effective, the medication must be taken exactly as your physician ordered. This may be for a long time, possibly as long as a year. If not taken as prescribed, the tuberculosis germ may become resistant to the drug, making the management of the disease much more difficult.

It’s important to keep taking your medications even though you feel better.

Healthy lifestyle tips

A person with tuberculosis should:

  • Eat a sensible diet
  • Get plenty of sleep in a well-ventilated area.
  • Cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing and put sputum and secretion tissues in a plastic bag.
  • Wash hands often (this is very important).

No special precautions are needed for dishes, laundry, etc. These can be washed in hot, soapy water.

Additional resources