What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, commonly known as TB, is a bacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs. Although this illness develops in the lungs, TB may spread to other areas of the body and attack vital organs. Of all infectious diseases today, tuberculosis is the most common. Many believe that tuberculosis is a disease of the past. Vaccinations have successfully decreased the number of yearly deaths, and antibiotics are highly effective with treating this illness. Nonetheless, tuberculosis remains a serious illness with nearly 2 billion infected globally.

Individuals infected with tuberculosis have either a latent or active form of this disease. Over 90% of all tuberculosis cases are latent, or dormant. This means that the TB causing bacteria is present in a person’s body, but the disease is not active. The odds of latent tuberculosis becoming active are less than ten percent. This type of tuberculosis cannot be spread to others. Active TB means that the disease is spreading throughout the body. It will begin in the lungs, and will progress if left untreated. This form of TB is highly contagious. Active tuberculosis is a serious condition that required medical treatment. It is estimated that approximately 50% of TB victims die. In fact, tuberculosis is third among deaths caused by infectious diseases. The other two, AIDS and malaria, result in 3 million combined deaths a year.

Cause of Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria known as mycobacterium tuberculosis. Compared to other bacteria, the TB bacterium is slow-growing. A person becomes infected with tuberculosis when they inhale tiny particles of infected mucus. Sadly, tuberculosis can happen to anyone regardless of all precautionary measures to avoid becoming sick. Those who practice good hygiene religiously wash their hands to kill bacteria and disinfect personal items. However, tuberculosis moves through the air. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, spits, yells, and so forth, minute particles travel in the air. A person may inhale the TB bacteria by simply being in the same room with an infected person who coughs. This is the reason many cases of tuberculosis occur among people who are in close company with each other. Although tuberculosis may be easily transmitted, it is extremely difficult to trace. Because TB is a very contagious and life-threatening illness, doctors work diligently to determine when and where a person contracted the illness. Symptoms of TB may occur rapidly. Co-workers and family member of newly infected person’s will need to be tested for the illness.

Person’s who suffer from latent tuberculosis, and have a healthy immune system will likely never develop an active case. However, certain medical conditions and drugs increase the chances of active TB developing. They include:

Individuals who are HIV infected
Those who use IV drug injections
Substance abusers
Cancer patients
Individuals who are underweight

Additionally, the following individuals have a greater risk of being infected with the tuberculosis bacteria:

Individual who work in the healthcare field (hospital, nursing home, home heath care)
Homeless people

What Happens?

When the tuberculosis bacterium enters the body, immediately the immune system begins to attack. Strong immune systems are able to restrict the bacteria to a specific area, thus it does not spread throughout the body. As scar tissue forms around the bacteria, it becomes isolated. This is latent TB, and it cannot be spread.

However, individuals who suffer from a weak immune system may not be able to isolate the bacteria. This occurs in cancer patients, the elderly, or those who suffer from other infectious diseases. When scar tissue is unable to form, the bacterium begins to spread and ultimately infects other parts of the body such as the kidneys, bones, brain, and spinal cord.

Currently, 2 billion people worldwide are infected with either a latent or active form of tuberculosis. This number will continue to rise as each year gives birth to 8 million new cases. Fortunately, the number of TB cases within the United States is low when compared to other countries. Approximately 10 million Americans are infected with the bacteria, and there are 22,000 new cases yearly.

Symptoms of Tuberculosis

Individual with latent tuberculosis do not show signs of the disease. Active TB develops slowly, and victims may be unaware that a problem exists. Common symptoms of active tuberculosis include:

Chronic cough that produces thick, sometimes bloody, mucus
Increased heart rate
Swollen lymph nodes
Night Sweats
Unexplained weight loss

Person’s who develop one or more of these symptoms should see a doctor. These symptoms may be a sign of tuberculosis, or a sign of another serious illness such as lung cancer or pneumonia. Signs of TB appear at different speeds. Some with an active form of tuberculosis may become sick within days of begin infected. On the other hand, another person may not develop symptoms until weeks or months later.

Diagnosing Tuberculosis

A physical exam is necessary for doctors to diagnose tuberculosis. After examining a patient’s medical history and symptoms, a series are test will be ordered.

Skin Test: This test is the most common procedure for tuberculosis screening. This involves injecting dead tuberculosis bacteria into the skin. Those who are not infected with TB will not respond to the injection.

Sputum Culture: This medical procedure involves removing a mucus sample from the lungs and examining it for traces of the tuberculosis bacteria. If the bacterium is present, a sensitivity test is needed. The purpose of this test is to determine which antibiotics are successful with treating the disease.

Chest X-ray: This imaging test is only effective with diagnosing latent tuberculosis. Radiologist will be able to detect scar tissue in the lungs signifying that the bacteria is contained and isolated.

Treatment of Tuberculosis

Antibiotics are highly effective with treating latent and active tuberculosis. This includes a combination of drugs over an extended period. Those with active TB may take four different drugs over a six month time frame. Additionally, the treatment for latent TB is generally longer, approximately nine months to a year. The purpose of treatment is to remedy symptoms of active tuberculosis, and prevent latent tuberculosis from becoming active.

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