By Alison Gorman, M.D.
Have you heard of TB? TB is an infection caused by the tuberculosis bacteria. This germ is very common throughout many parts of the world. People with tuberculosis can have active infection, which can make them feel very sick, or they can have a silent infection, called Latent TB or “sleeping TB,” which has no symptoms at all.
People can become infected with the TB bacteria by breathing in the germ from the air. This often happens when a person breathes in air after a person with active TB spreads the bacteria by talking, singing, or coughing..
A person with active TB can have a cough that does not go away, night sweats, fever, or weight loss. Usually, people with active TB infection do not feel well.
In contrast, a person with a silent or Latent TB infection feels healthy because the bacteria is sleeping and is not causing any symptoms. A person with Latent TB cannot spread the TB germ to others.
It is important to find out if someone has been exposed to the TB germ. We do this with a skin test called a “PPD” or a blood test. Both show if a person has breathed in the TB germ.
If the test shows that a person has breathed in the TB germ, it is important to find out if the germ is asleep or awake. Because TB usually causes symptoms in the lungs, medical providers check an Xray of the lungs to make sure that the bacteria has not caused any disease. They will also ask about other symptoms because TB can affect other parts of the body in addition to the lungs.
If the X-ray shows active disease, patients are referred to a TB specialist to get treatment with strong medications. It is important for these patients to be treated – it protects their health, as well as preventing them from spreading the germ to other people in the community. Patients with active TB work with a medical team to ensure they get the medication and care they need. Usually treatment lasts for several months.
If the X-ray does not show any active disease in the lungs and there is no concern for TB elsewhere in the body, a person has Latent TB Infection. It is important for people with Latent TB infection to get treatment, too. Some may wonder why a person needs to be treated if they feel fine; this is because the sleeping bacteria can wake up at any time and cause active infection. This occurs in 5-10 % of people. If the bacteria wake up, people can feel sick and can then spread the germ to others. Patients with Latent TB take medications for months to make sure the bacteria never wake up.
Testing for TB and treatment of active and latent TB infections benefit all of us. When we work together to limit the spread of tuberculosis, the health of individuals and our community improves. Please talk to your medical team if you have questions or want to be screened for tuberculosis.