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Pulmonary Tuberculosis

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Updated September 30, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Definition: Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacteria known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. TB generally affects the lungs, but it also can invade other organs of the body, like the brain, kidneys and lymphatic system.

Because some TB symptoms are similar to those of COPD, it is not uncommon for it to be included in a differential diagnosis of COPD, when your doctor is trying to rule out other causes for your COPD symptoms.

TB is spread by airborne contamination, meaning the infected droplets are carried through the air and then inhaled by other people. Not everyone who is exposed to TB gets an active infection. Only those who have the actual bacteria in their lungs get sick and are considered infectious.

How Is TB Spread?

TB is spread through coughing, sneezing, and spitting. Only a small amount of inhaled germs are needed to become infected, however prolonged exposure to someone else who has TB is the easiest way to get the disease. Those who have a weakened immune system are even more at risk.

How Is TB Diagnosed?

TB is diagnosed by a positive tuberculin skin test, a specialized sputum culture and chest X-ray. If you have a positive skin test, it does not mean that you have active disease. To verify bacteria in the lungs, sputum (phlegm) cultures have to be taken and sent to a lab. If the lab is able to grow TB bacteria from the sample, TB is present.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of TB?

Many people who are infected with TB have few or no symptoms at all, at least in the beginning. Some people develop symptoms slowly, over time, and pay little attention to them until the disease has reached the advanced stages. When symptoms do appear, they generally include:

  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • cough with purulent and/or bloody sputum
  • night sweats
  • low-grade fever that occurs mostly in the afternoon
  • lethargy

Treatment For TB

Treatment for TB includes antibiotic therapy with a combination of drugs to which the bacteria is susceptible. This may include drugs like isoniazid, rifampin, pyrazinamide, ethambutol, and steptomycin.

Prevention of TB

If you have TB, it's important not to spread it to other people. Take the following measures:

  • Stay home from school or work and avoid other people in your home for the first few weeks of your treatment.
  • Adequately ventilate your home as small enclosed spaces makes it easier for the bacteria to spread.
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue, immediately discard it into a sealed trash bag afterward and don't forget to wash your hands thoroughly.

If hospitalization is required, a TB patient my be discharged to home while still infectious, provided no one in the person's home is at high risk for active TV (sick or young people). While still considered infectious, the patient should stay home as much as possible and should wear a surgical mask when leaving the home or receiving visitors.

If you think you have symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible for a thorough evaluation.

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