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TB FAQ - Introduction

What is TB?

TB, or tuberculosis, is a disease caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria can attack any part of your body, but they usually attack the lungs. TB disease was once the leading cause of death in the United States.

In the 1940s, scientists discovered the first of several drugs now used to treat TB. As a result, TB slowly began to disappear in the United States. But TB has come back. After 1984, the number of TB cases reported in the United States began to increase. More than 25,000 cases were reported in 1992.

TB is spread through the air from one person to another. The bacteria are put into the air when a person with TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs or sneezes. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected.

People who are infected with TB do not feel sick, do not have any symptoms, and cannot spread TB. But they may develop TB disease at some time in the future. People with TB disease can be treated and cured if they seek medical help. Even better, people who have TB infection but are not yet sick can take medicine so that they will never develop TB disease.

How is TB spread?

TB is spread through the air from one person to another. The bacteria are put into the air when a person with TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs or sneezes. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected.

When a person breathes in TB bacteria, the bacteria can settle in the lungs and begin to grow. From there, they move through the blood to other parts of the body, such as the kidney, spine, and brain.

TB in the lungs or throat can be infectious. This means that the bacteria can be spread to other people. TB in other parts of the body, such as the kidney or spine, is usually not infectious.

People with TB disease are most likely to spread it to people they spend time with every day. This includes family members, friends, and coworkers.

What is TB infection?

In most people who breathe in TB bacteria and become infected, the body is able to fight the bacteria to stop them from growing. The bacteria become inactive, but they remain alive in the body and can become active later. This is called TB infection. People with TB infection:

  • Have no symptoms
  • Don't feel sick
  • Can't spread TB to others
  • Usually have a positive skin test reaction and a positive QuantiFERON TB Gold ®
  • Can develop TB disease later in life if they do not receive treatment for their TB infection

Many people who have TB infection never develop TB disease. In these people, the TB bacteria remain inactive for a lifetime without causing disease. But in other people, especially people who have weak immune systems, the bacteria become active and cause TB disease.

What is TB disease?

TB bacteria become active if the immune system can't stop them from growing. The active bacteria begin to multiply in the body and cause TB disease. Some people develop TB disease soon after becoming infected, before their immune system can fight the TB bacteria. Other people may get sick later, when their immune system becomes weak for some reason.

Babies and young children often have weak immune systems. People infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, have very weak immune systems. Other people can have weak immune systems, too, especially people with any of these conditions:

  • Substance abuse
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Silicosis
  • Cancer of the head or neck
  • Leukemia or Hodgkin's disease
  • Severe kidney disease
  • Low body weight
  • Certain medical treatments (such as corticosteroid treatment or organ transplants)

Symptoms of TB depend on where in the body the TB bacteria are growing. TB bacteria usually grow in the lungs. TB in the lungs may cause:

  • A bad cough that lasts longer than 2 weeks
  • Pain in the chest
  • Coughing up blood or sputum (phlegm from deep inside the lungs)

Other symptoms of TB disease maybe:

  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • No appetite
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Sweating at night

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