Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection that is spread through inhaling droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. It mainly affects the lungs, but it can affect any part of the body, including the tummy (abdomen), glands, bones, and nervous system. Tuberculosis is a potentially serious condition, but it can be cured if treated with the right antibiotics.

Symptoms of tuberculosis

Typical symptoms of tuberculosis include:

  • a persistent cough that lasts more than 3 weeks and usually produces phlegm, which may be bloody
  • weight loss
  • night sweats
  • high temperature
  • tiredness and fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • swellings in the neck

You should see a GP if you have a cough that lasts for more than 3 weeks or if you cough up blood.

What causes tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection. TB that affects the lungs (pulmonary TB) is the most contagious type, but it usually only spreads after prolonged exposure to someone with the disease. In most healthy people, the body’s natural defence against infection and disease (the immune system) kills bacteria and causes no symptoms. Sometimes the immune system can’t kill the bacteria but is able to stop it from spreading through the body.

You will not have any symptoms, but the bacteria will remain in your body. This is known as latent tuberculosis. People with latent TB are not contagious to others. If the immune system fails to kill or contain the infection, it can spread within the lungs or other parts of the body, with symptoms developing over a few weeks or months. This is known as active tuberculosis. Latent TB could develop into active TB disease at a later date, especially if your immune system is weakened.

Tuberculosis treatment

With treatment, TB can almost always be cured. In general, it will be necessary to take a course of antibiotics for 6 months. Several different antibiotics are used because some forms of TB are resistant to certain antibiotics. If you are infected with a drug-resistant form of TB, you may need to be treated with 6 or more different drugs.

If you are diagnosed with pulmonary TB, you will be contagious for about 2 to 3 weeks in the course of your treatment. You usually won’t need to be isolated during this time, but it is important to take some basic precautions to prevent the infection from spreading to your family and friends.

You should:

  • stay away from work, school or college until your TB treatment team tells you it is safe to return
  • always cover your mouth when coughing, sneezing or laughing
  • carefully dispose of any used tissue in a sealed plastic bag
  • open windows where possible to ensure a good supply of fresh air in areas where you spend time
  • avoid sleeping in the same room as other people

If you are in close contact with someone who has TB, you may be tested to see if you are also infected. These may include a chest X-ray, blood tests, and a skin test called a Mantoux test.

Vaccination for tuberculosis

The BCG vaccine offers protection against TB and is recommended on the NHS for babies, children and adults under 35 who are considered to be at risk of contracting TB. The BCG vaccine is not routinely given to people over the age of 35, as there is no evidence that it works for people in this age group.

Groups at risk include:

  • children living in areas with high rates of TB
  • people with close relatives from countries with high TB rates
  • people who will be living and working with the local population for more than 3 months in an area with high TB rates

If you are a healthcare worker or NHS employee and come into contact with patients or clinical samples, you should also be vaccinated against TB, regardless of your age, if:

  • has not been previously vaccinated (no BCG scar or documentation), and
  • the results of a Mantoux skin test or TB interferon-gamma release assay (IGRA) blood test are negative

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