What is tuberculosis?
Tuberculosis is a potentially dangerous bacterial disease, which affects the lungs and is caused by an organism called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is highly contagious and spreads from person to person through the air.
Tuberculosis is the second leading cause of infectious mortality in the world, after HIV, and results in over 1 million deaths per year. Outbreaks often occur in crowded conditions.
Around 10% infected people develop active TB in their lifetimes. If not treated properly or left untreated, it can be fatal.
How does tuberculosis occur?
When a patient suffering from tuberculosis sneezes, coughs, laughs or spits, they spread the TB germs into the air. Any person nearby inhaling the air with the germs can get infected.
Once the bacteria enters a person’s system they concentrate and grow gradually in areas of the body that have lots of blood and oxygen. Therefore, they are almost always found in the lungs.
The incubation period may vary from about two to 12 weeks. A person may remain contagious for a long time (as long as viable TB bacteria are present in sputum) and can remain contagious until they have been on appropriate therapy for several weeks.
The bacteria can cause cavities to form in the lungs. Due to the cavities, bleeding may occur in the lungs. These pockets or cavities may also become infected with other bacteria and abscesses or pockets of pus may form as a result.
TB of the lungs is called Pulmonary TB. Pulmonary TB is highly contagious. However, TB can also spread to other parts of the body. This form of TB is called Extrapulmonary TB.
Simply inhaling the germs does not mean a person will develop what is called active tuberculosis. A person's immune system is often able to control the infection so that it does not cause the disease. In such a case, the bacteria will be there in the body in an inactive state and cause no symptoms of TB.
Based on this fact you can distinguish between:
- Latent TB or Inactive TB: which is a condition in which the bacteria is in your body but in an inactive state and cause no symptoms of TB. This kind of TB infection is not contagious. At any point in time, however, based on the general health of the person this form of TB can turn active. Therefore treatment is imperative even for cases of Latent TB which can control the spread of TB.
- Active TB: In this condition the person with the infection becomes sick, experiences all the symptoms of TB, and can also infect others. TB can turn active immediately after infection or it can also become active years later.
Who is prone to tuberculosis?
Those who are at a high risk of contracting TB include:
- people exposed to patients suffering from active pulmonary TB
- health care workers who serve patients with TB
- people in or working in prisons, nursing homes, homeless shelters, drug treatment facilities, and healthcare facilities
- people living in areas which have high rates of TB
- infants, and young children and elderly people who have weak immune systems
- drug abusers especially those who indulge in IV drug abuse
- people suffering from HIV infection
- people suffering from head and neck cancers
- people who already have suffered from TB before and who were inadequately treated, especially infants and young children
- patients who have undergone any form of transplant
- kidney patients
- people undergoing immunosuppressive therapy
What are the symptoms of tuberculosis? How is tuberculosis diagnosed?
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
- unintentional weight loss
- night sweats
- loss of appetite
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- swollen lymph nodes
For diagnosing TB a doctor will at first perform a physical exam. Using a stethoscope he listens to the sounds your lungs make when you breathe, and he will also check your lymph nodes.
Depending on his findings he might ask you to go for
- A skin test: The skin test involves injecting a substance PPD tuberculin just below the skin of your inside forearm. After 48 to 72 hours, if you have TB, there will be a noticeable, hard, red swelling at the injected site.
- Blood tests: Blood tests are done to ascertain the presence of TB bacterium in the body of the patient. Blood tests do not, however, ensure if the patient has latent TB infection or it has progressed to active TB infection.
- A chest x-ray: A chest x-ray can show the extent of damage to the lungs, and if further tests are required.
- A CT scan: CT scans provide more-detailed images than X-rays do. A CT scan can show if your immune system has cordoned off any TB bacteria, or the extent of damage to the lungs in case of active TB.
- Sputum test: This test is performed on the mucus that comes out with your cough. It can reveal TB bacteria if any.
What are the complications of tuberculosis?
Tuberculosis can cause numerous health complications such as:
- back pain and stiffness
- joint damage due to tuberculous arthritis especially in the hips and knees
- meningitis, due to swelling of the membranes that cover your brain which can cause headaches
- impaired liver or kidney functions, if tuberculosis spreads to the liver and kidneys
- heart disorders if tuberculosis infects the tissues surrounding your heart. This can cause inflammation and fluid collections which can, in turn, disrupt the normal functioning of your heart including your heart's ability to pump effectively. A condition called cardiac tamponade may occur which can be fatal.
What is the treatment of tuberculosis?
It is extremely important that you follow the treatment religiously if you suffer from TB. Treating tuberculosis can be a lengthy process compared to other bacterial infections.
Depending on your overall health, your age, possible drug resistance, the form of TB you have (latent or active) and the location of the infection in your body, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics which you may need to take for up to nine months.
Some short-term treatments (up to four months) are also available these days. Please consult your doctor for more information about what treatment suits you better.
Did you know?
2.2 Million People Develop T.B. in India Every Year
Each year about 2.2 million people develop TB in India and an estimated 220,000 die from the disease.
Over 1/3rd TB Cases In India Remain Undiagnosed
Over one third of TB cases in India are not diagnosed, or they are diagnosed but not treated.
2 Million People Have Latent TB
An estimated 2 billion people have latent TB.
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