Understanding Tuberculosis: 6 Facts to Know

What is this infectious disease, and how is it spread?

Tuberculosis, known at different points in time as “consumption” and the “white plague,” was an epidemic in the U.S. and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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The airborne disease, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, usually infects the lungs but can sometimes infect other parts of the body such as the spine or brain. It can causes a persistent cough, chest pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, fever and chills.

Thanks to better disease monitoring and treatments, TB infection rates are dramatically lower in this part of the world today. In 2017, 9,105 cases were reported in the U.S. – the lowest annual number ever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But it does still remain one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, affecting millions of new people each year.

Here are a few key things to know about tuberculosis today.

It’s most prevalent in developing countries.

Tuberculosis rates are highest in parts of Asia, Africa and the Western Pacific region. Globally, TB incidence is falling about 2 percent per year, according to the CDC.

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Certain people are more at risk.

In the U.S., tuberculosis more commonly occurs in people who were born in other countries, particularly those with high rates of the disease. People with impaired or immature immune systems, such as those infected with HIV, are also more at risk for TB.

It’s not easily spread.

TB isn’t spread by a casual encounter. It usually takes a lot of time spent in close contact with someone who is contagious to get TB.

A person with active TB disease releases bacteria when they cough, sneeze, talk or laugh. For most people who breathe in that bacteria, their immune system is able to fight it and stop it from growing in their body. The infection becomes inactive in these people, where it can remain for any period of time.

But if the immune system is unable to stop the bacteria from growing, it becomes active TB disease. This is when symptoms begin and a person becomes contagious.

Children almost always acquire TB from being in close contact with an adult who has active TB.

Children generally do not transmit TB to other children, says pediatric infectious disease specialist Camille Sabella, MD.

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Latent bacteria in the body can become active later.

If the immune system of someone who has inactive tuberculosis in their body becomes weakened, the bacteria can grow and become active TB disease.

It’s detectable and curable.

Early detection and treatment is key to controlling the spread of TB. It can be detected by a blood or skin test, even when it is latent in a person’s body. Both inactive bacteria and most cases of active TB disease can also be treated with antibiotics.

Your physician might consider screening for TB if:

  • You are a resident or employee in a group settings where the risk of spreading an infectious disease is high (i.e. hospitals, shelters, jails).
  • You have been in contact with a person who is known or suspected to have TB disease.
  • Your body’s resistance to illness is low because of a weak immune system.
  • You think you might already have TB disease and are having symptoms.
  • You are from a country or lived in a country where TB disease is prevalent.

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