Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis (TB)

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Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious disease caused by bacteria that can spread from person to person through the air. Most often, TB infects the lungs, but in severe cases, it can also harm other parts of your body. When not treated properly, TB can be fatal. Here is more information about TB, how it is treated, and ways to help prevent its spread.

Outline of woman's head and chest with head turned to side. Inside of nose, airway, and lungs are visible. Man in background is coughing out droplets with TB germs. Droplets are being breathed in to woman's nose and lungs.

What are the risk factors for TB?

Anyone can get TB, but your risk is greatest if you:

  • Have an immune system weakened by medications such as steroids or a disease such as diabetes

  • Have close contact with someone who has untreated active TB

  • Are elderly

  • Live or work in a residential facility, such as a shelter, nursing home, or prison

  • Travel to or come from a country where TB is common

How does TB spread?

TB bacteria are released into the air when someone with the active form of TB coughs or sneezes. The bacteria spread easily, especially in crowded places with poor airflow. The longer you breathe these germs, the more likely you are to become infected.

What are the symptoms of TB?

There are 2 types of TB: inactive (also called TB infection) and active (also called TB disease).

Inactive TB (TB infection)

If you have been diagnosed with inactive TB, it means you:

  • Have live TB bacteria in your lungs, but the germs have been sealed off, much like a scab covers a wound. As a result, you don’t have symptoms or feel sick. The only way to know you have inactive TB is with a TB test.

  • Can’t spread the infection to others

  • May need medication to keep the infection from becoming active

Active TB (TB disease)

If you have been diagnosed with active TB, it means you:

  • Have symptoms of TB such as a lasting cough, fatigue, fever, night sweats, and weight loss. You are likely to feel very sick.

  • Can spread the infection to others.

  • Must take medication to help cure the disease. Treatment often takes months. TB can be hard to cure.

How is TB diagnosed?

Two tests can help detect TB infection:

  • Skin test (PPD). A testing solution is placed just beneath the skin on your arm to see if a reaction (such as a hard, red bump) occurs. You will need to return to the office in 2 or 3 days to have your arm checked. Be sure to keep the appointment. You will learn the test results during this visit.

  • Blood test. In this test, a small amount of blood is drawn and sent to a lab for testing. Your health care provider can tell you whether this test is offered in your area.

  • Other tests. If you have TB infection, other tests, such as a chest X-ray, are needed to learn whether the infection is active. Your health care provider may also take a sample of your sputum (mucus that comes up when you cough). The sample is sent to a lab and tested for TB bacteria. Knowing the type of bacteria causing your illness helps your health care provider choose the right medication to treat the disease.

What do the test results mean?

  • A negative result usually means that your body is free of TB bacteria.

  • A positive result means you have been exposed to the germs that cause TB.

How is TB treated?

  • Both inactive and active TB are treated with medications. If you have active TB, you may take more medication for a longer time.

  • You will likely begin feeling better shortly after starting treatment, but be sure to keep taking all the medication you have been prescribed. This is the only way to cure the disease. Not taking all the medication means you won’t get well and can continue to spread TB germs to others.

  • Sometimes TB germs are resistant. This means they don’t respond to the medications normally used to treat them. Resistant TB is harder to cure, but effective medications can almost always be found.

What is DOT?

During treatment, you may participate in a program called DOT (directly observed therapy). In this program, a nurse or health care worker supervises your treatment. This makes it easier to finish treatment in the least amount of time. You can also ask a friend or family member to remind you to take your medication.

During treatment for TB

  • Make sure to take all the medication as directed, even when you start feeling better. You will take the medication for 6 months or longer. Sticking to this schedule takes patience. But stopping treatment early means your symptoms may come back. It also helps create germs that are more harmful and harder to kill.

  • Get plenty of rest and eat healthy meals. A nutritious diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables helps the body fight infection.

  • Check with your health care provider before using any over-the-counter medications that haven’t been prescribed.

  • If you are taking birth control pills, use an additional backup method of birth control. Your TB medication may make the pill less effective.

  • Limit your activity to avoid fatigue. Plan frequent rest periods.

  • Keep your medical appointments. You will need to be checked often to make sure that your medication is working and you are getting better.

How family and friends can help

TB is a serious illness that takes a long time to cure. If you have a family member or friend with TB, you can help by reminding your loved one to:

  • Take TB medications at the same time every day (they’re best taken with water, milk, or juice 30 minutes before meals or at bedtime).

  • Keep all follow-up appointments (you can help by driving or arranging for a ride).

  • Get plenty of rest. 

  • Eat healthy meals.

Preventing the spread of TB

If you have active TB, you should:

  • Ask family, friends, and the people you work with to get tested. Active TB can spread to other people.

  • Avoid close contact with others until your health care provider says it’s OK.

  • Wash your hands often, especially after coughing.

  • Use a tissue to cover your mouth when you cough. If you don’t have a tissue, cough into the crook of your elbow, not your hand.

  • Wear a mask, if you have been told to do so, when you go out in public or to visit the doctor. 

  • Use a plastic bag to throw away old tissues and other supplies.

When to seek medical care

Call your health care provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • A fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Increased coughing or coughing up blood

  • Chest pain or shortness of breath

  • Night sweats

  • Trouble breathing

Also call your health care provider if you are taking TB medication and think you are having side effects, such as skin rash, yellowing of the eyes, or stomach problems.