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Tuberculosis (TB)

Illustration of  the anatomy of the respiratory system, adult

What is TB?

Tuberculosis can be a chronic bacterial infection that usually infects the lungs, although other organs, such as the kidneys, spine, or brain are sometimes involved. TB is primarily spread in an airborne manner from person to person. It can also cause an active infection after a period of dormancy in someone who was exposed at an earlier time.

There is a difference between being infected with the TB bacterium and having active tuberculosis disease.

There are three important ways to describe the stages of TB. They are as follows:

  1. Exposure. This occurs when a person has been in contact with, or exposed to, another person who is thought to have or does have TB. The exposed person will have a negative skin test, a normal chest X-ray, and no signs or symptoms of the disease.

  2. Latent TB infection. This occurs when a person has TB bacteria in his or her body, but does not have symptoms of the disease. The infected person's immune system walls off the TB organisms, and the TB remains dormant throughout life in most people who are infected. This person would have a positive skin test but a normal chest X-ray.

  3. TB disease. This describes the person who has signs and symptoms of an active infection. The person would have a positive skin test and a positive chest X-ray.

The predominant TB bacterium is Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis). Many people infected with M. tuberculosis never develop active TB and remain in the latent TB stage. However, in people with weakened immune systems, especially those with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), TB organisms can overcome the body's defenses, multiply, and cause an active disease.

Who is at risk for developing TB?

TB affects all ages, races, income levels, and both genders. Those at higher risk include the following:

What are the symptoms of TB?

The following are the most common symptoms of active TB. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently:

The symptoms of TB may resemble other lung conditions or medical problems. Consult a doctor for a diagnosis.

What causes TB?

The TB bacterium is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks, sings, or laughs. It is not likely to be transmitted through personal items, such as clothing, bedding, a drinking glass, eating utensils, a handshake, a toilet, or other items that a person with TB has touched. Adequate ventilation is the most important measure to prevent the transmission of TB.

How is TB diagnosed?

The presence of TB is often diagnosed with a TB skin test. In this test, a small amount of testing material is injected into the top layer of the skin. If a certain size bump develops within two or three days, the test may be positive for tuberculosis infection. Additional tests to determine if a person has TB disease include X-rays and sputum tests. There is a blood test that can be done in place of the TB skin test. 

TB skin tests are suggested for those:

For skin testing in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends testing:

What is the treatment for tuberculosis?

Specific treatment will be determined by your doctor based on:

Treatment may include: