Man coughing

Tuberculosis: Symptoms, Causes, Prevention, Treatment

Tuberculosis is a dangerous and contagious disease caused by strains of mycobacteria. A general misconception about tuberculosis is that the disease is peculiar to the lungs. The disease predominantly attacks the lungs; however, it can spread to any part of the body.

Tuberculosis can spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks and disperse air droplets into the atmosphere.

Despite the advancement in treatment options, tuberculosis remains an uncontained pandemic plaguing about one-third of the human population, with an increased number of infected people recorded in countries in some regions like South America, Africa, and Asia due to bad economic and social conditions.

Tuberculosis is highly contagious and ranks third after cardiovascular and respiratory disease as the leading cause of death. However, exposure to an infected person for a prolonged duration must occur before contracting the disease.

Types of Tuberculosis

Mycobacteria strains may occur in the body where they replicate and spread across the body. But a sound immune system will prevent the sickness. The activity of the disease has led to the classification of tuberculosis into two main groups, which are latent tuberculosis and active tuberculosis.

Latent tuberculosis

With latent tuberculosis, the immune system prevents the replication of the bacteria; however, the bacteria remain alive and can generate tuberculosis in the nearest future if not properly managed. People with latent tuberculosis often show no symptoms and are not contagious.

Active tuberculosis

With active tuberculosis, the growth of the bacteria is exponential, causing an active infection when air droplets produced by an infected person enter the lungs.

Forms of active tuberculosis include:

Primary pulmonary tuberculosis: this type of tuberculosis occurs in a patient that has never had exposure to mycobacterium tuberculosis. Patients usually affected by this form of tuberculosis are infants and children. This type of tuberculosis is common in regions with poor medical care and a high rate of malnutrition.

Post-primary pulmonary tuberculosis: this stage of tuberculosis is also called the reactivation stage. Most patients affected with primary pulmonary tuberculosis do not develop symptoms; however, if left untreated, the bacteria will eventually start to replicate, overcome the immune system, and spread to the lungs and other parts of the body.

Extra-pulmonary tuberculosis: This form of tuberculosis is common in other parts of the body. Organs often affected include the kidneys, bones, lymph nodes, and the nervous system.

Military tuberculosis: Military tuberculosis, also called disseminated TB, occurs due to tubercle bacilli being spread throughout the body via the bloodstream, resulting in small granulomatous lesions (approximately 1mm or 2mm in size). Military TB is more prevalent in infants, children younger than four years old, and immunocompromised individuals.

Symptoms of Tuberculosis

Patients affected by tuberculosis exhibit different symptoms depending on the size and form of infection. Common symptoms of tuberculosis include:

  • tiredness
  • mild or severe fever
  • Decrease or loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Difficulty in breathing gets worse as the disease progresses
  • Coughing up phlegm
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Night sweats
  • Swollen glands
  • Headaches
  • Skin rash
  • Painful joints
  • Abdominal pain
  • Scrotal mass

Diagnosis of tuberculosis

Diagnosing tuberculosis on your own may not be accurate as they have similar symptoms to a common cold. Your doctors can prescribe a few antibiotics, but a detailed test will follow if symptoms persist.

This test varies depending on the level of exposure and severity of the disease. For patients with extrapulmonary tuberculosis, your doctor may carry out another test, such as a CT scan. This test shows accurate imaging from the inside of your body, and an MRI scan might also help develop a detailed image.

Other tests used for accurate diagnosis include blood and urine tests, ultrasound scans, and a biopsy.

Tuberculosis Prevention

Vaccination at birth is a common practice in countries with a high rate of tuberculosis. Routine administration occurs in countries like the United States with a low risk of infection. People with a compromised immune system are also encouraged to treat tuberculosis even if their PPD test result is negative.

Treatment for Tuberculosis

Isoniazid and rifampin are common drugs administered by doctors to patients diagnosed with tuberculosis. Treatment often lasts for about 6 to 9 months using a dedicated treatment pattern.

Due to bacterial mutation, tuberculosis can develop resistance to certain antibiotics. Hence, doctors often prescribe a combination of Rifampicin, Isoniazid, Pyrazinamide, and Ethambutol as standard medications for treating and preventing the replication of Mycobacterium bacteria.

When to See a Doctor

If you have travelled to regions with a high rate of tuberculosis or have had exposure to an infected person, it is only right to call your doctor and discuss your concerns.