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Image of Naccho LogoTuberculosis: Not a New Disease

Tuberculosis, commonly known as TB, has been around for centuries dating back to ancient Greece and Imperial Rome. Today, however, tuberculosis remains one of the leading infectious disease killers worldwide. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, one third of the world's population is infected with TB and approximately 2 million TB-related deaths occur as a result. Despite advances in the development of new drugs and vaccines, emerging drug-resistant strains of the disease are creating new challenges in our continuing attempts to control and prevent tuberculosis. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited approximately 14,000 cases of active TB in the United States in 2006 and estimated 10-15 million people with latent onset TB. Minorities (Asians and Hispanics in particular) are affected more than any other group of foreign-born individuals nearly- nine times that of people born in the United States.

What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis is a disease caused by the bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is a chronic bacterial infection spread through the air from person to person by way of droplets when a person with the disease coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings. The germs can stay in the air for hours, depending on the surrounding environment. It usually affects the lungs. However, other parts and organs of the body can also be involved. Most people who become infected have no symptoms (latent TB) whereas some will develop active TB disease with symptoms. It is often a severe contagious disease usually treated with a regimen of medications taken for six months to two years, depending on the type of infection.

What are the symptoms of TB?

Early symptoms of TB include weight loss, night sweats, fever, loss of appetite and feelings of sickness or weakness. The symptoms that active TB disease has invaded the lungs include coughing, chest pain, and coughing up blood that may last for several weeks. If TB has infected other parts of the body, those symptoms may last longer as well.

What is the difference between latent TB infection and TB disease?

Latent TB infection generally involves inactive germs in the body that cannot be spread to others. The TB germs are present but people generally do not show signs or symptoms of the disease. This infection cannot be spread through food or by handling dirty utensils, or linens. However, latent TB infected people may develop TB disease at a later time if the inactive germs become activated.

People with TB disease on the other hand, have symptoms such as coughing, chest pain, and coughing up blood. The bacterial germs that are activated in the body are multiplying and destroying body tissues. These people are capable of spreading the germs to other people that they either have spent time with during the day or have been around recently.

How do I know if I have TB?

If you have been exposed to a person with TB disease, there are tests that can be done to detect TB: a skin test or a special TB blood test. The Mantoux tuberculin skin test is most often used where a small amount of fluid (tuberculin) is injected under the skin on the forearm. A trained health care professional will look for a reaction within 48 to 72 hours following the skin test. The special blood test done measure's how a person's immune system reacts to the germs that cause TB. A chest x-ray may be done if damage is suspected to the lungs along with a sputum culture.

Can TB be treated?

Yes. TB can be treated by taking several antibiotic medications for at least six months to a year. It is very important that these medications be taken exactly as prescribed and that all the medications be taken in their entirety. Stopping the drugs to early can cause a person to become sick again; not taking the medications correctly enables the germs to remain alive and become resistant to the drugs. If this occurs, the TB germs become more difficult to treat.