CONDITIONS A-Z

Tuberculosis

TB (Tuberculosis) is an infectious disease that usually affects the lungs, although it can affect any part of the body. About 150 years ago, it caused one in eight of all deaths in the UK, but in the 1980’s, with better housing and nutrition and better treatments, it had become uncommon with only 5000 cases in 1987.

However TB had not been wiped out completely. Over the last 20 years numbers in the UK have been slowly rising. About 7000 people now get TB each year.

TB is not easily caught – you have to be in close ongoing contact with someone with TB (for example living in the same household) – but everybody should be aware of the symptoms of the disease so that they can seek treatment as soon as possible.

How is Tuberculosis spread and am I likely to  get infected?

TB can only be caught directly from someone with infectious TB in their throat or lungs. Although TB is spread through the air when people cough or sneeze, it takes close and lengthy contact with and infectious person to catch the disease. So it’s highly unlikely that you will catch TB on the bus for example.

Not everyone with TB of the lungs is infectious and as long as they are taking the proper treatment most people that were infectious become non-infectious pretty quickly – generally after about two weeks.

While anyone can catch TB, some people are more at risk than others. These include people who:

  • Have lived in the same household as someone with infectious TB
  • Are living in unhealthy or overcrowded conditions, including those who are sleeping rough.
  • Have lived, worked or stayed for a long time in a country with a high rate of TB, such as south east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and some countries in Eastern Europe.
  • May have been exposed to TB in their youth when the diease was more common in this country.
  • Are the children of parents whose country of origin has a high rate of TB
  • Have been in prison
  • Have compromised immune systems due to illness (e.g. HIV infection)
  • Are addicted to drugs or misuse alcohol
  • Do not eat enough to stay healthy

Tuberculosis signs and symptoms

The most common symptoms of TB include:

  • A persistent cough that gets progressively worse over several weeks
  • Loss of weight for no obvious reason
  • Fever and heavy night sweats
  • A general and unusual sense of tiredness and being unwell.
  • Coughing up blood

All these may be signs of other problems but if you have them and are worried talk to a doctor or nurse at your local surgery or clinic.

If you are a close contact of someone who has been diagnosed with TB and there is a risk that you may have the infection, you will be offered a check-up at a special TB clinic.

How is Tuberculosis treated?

TB can be treated with special antibiotics. Once treatment starts you will begin to feel better after about 2 – 4 weeks. However the treatment needs to be continued for at least 6 months. It is vitally important to comple6e the whole course of antibiotics and cure TB. If you don’t TB may return in a form that is resistant to the usual drugs and much more difficult to treat. You may also pass this more serious infection to you family and friends.

If TB is not treated properly it may lead to death.

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