Tuberculosis or more popularly known as TB is a contagious, airborne disease that primarily affects the lungs; however, it can spread to other organs of the body such as the brain and spine – destroying the body tissue. Tuberculosis is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis and spreads from one person to another via tiny droplets of cough, laugh or sneeze released into the air. That said, it is not so easy to get infected with the TB virus. A person needs to be close to the person having the TB disease for a long period of time to be infected with the disease. It can easily spread amongst family members, close friends, co-workers, or anyone if the engagement lasts longer in a closed space. Having said that, some patients suffering from tuberculosis might not feel sick because the disease is primarily of two forms:
- Latent TB: In this form of tuberculosis, the germs are present in the body of the person, but the immune system restricts their growth, thereby ensuring sound health without any TB symptoms or risk of spreading the infection. However, the infection stays inside the body and can become active if the immune system is compromised due to many causes.
- Active TB: This is the severe form of latent TB, where the germs affect the body and also multiply to make you sick. This TB is also contagious and is mostly the result of reactivation of latent TB.
TB in the active form is a serious infectious disease, which can be cured with early diagnosis and treatment. Any delay in treatment can lead to the death of the patient. Hence, it is very critical to know the symptoms of TB so that one can be aware and know when to seek medical help.
For latent TB since there are no symptoms, it is advisable to get a blood or skin test to know if you have the infection.
For active TB, one must be cautious and lookout for some of these general symptoms, such as:
- A dense cough lasting more than 3 weeks
- Acute chest pain
- Pain in breathing or coughing
- Blood in cough
- Constant fatigue and extreme tiredness
- Night sweats
- Severe chills
- Consistent fever especially low-grade
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
These are general symptoms and a person infected with TB may display some or all of the symptoms. However, if the infection spreads to other organs of the body, the symptoms will differ and will depend on the infected organ such as – if the TB spread to spine and infects it, a person might experience acute back pain, whereas if the TB spread to the kidneys, the person will have blood in urine.
While TB is highly contagious, it does not thrive on surfaces and cannot spread by shaking hands with an infected person or sharing food. Moreover, a person needs to be near the infected for a long period of time to contact the virus. In that regard, people who are at most risk to contract the infection are:
- People who have travelled to TB infected areas such as Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe, Asia, etc.
- People who live in a hospital or a nursing home.
Apart from these, it is most likely that people with a weak immune system are more prone to be contacted with the infection. These could include:
- Babies and young children – with developing immune systems
- People who have diabetes or kidney disease
- HIV/ AIDS patient
- Organ transplant patients
- Cancer patients
- People with auto-immune disorders
- Malnourished or underweight people
- Chain smokers
- Substance users (alcohol and drugs)
For many people, tuberculosis may sound like a disease of the past, but the infection is still claiming a lot of lives in India. So, it is important to know how to prevent and treat the condition.
To minimize the chances of getting infected with TB it is best to get the bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccinations. However, if you have latent TB, one must get proper medical treatment to remove the infection, even if there are no symptoms. TB medications or preventive therapy last for a long period of time – approximately 6-12 months. Further, it is also important to not spread the infection further to more people. Some of the steps that can help are:
- Avoid public transportation
- Stay indoors and stay away from people
- Take all medication properly
- Cover your mouth while coughing, sneezing, and talking
- Wash your hands regularly
- Wear a mask
- Ventilate the room
While it is important to know the signs, symptoms and preventive measures for TB, it is also critical to understand how you can cure these symptoms and be TB free. If detected on time and given proper medical attention, TB is almost completely curable. When you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, consult your doctor and get tested. The doctors will prescribe antibiotics which will last for a long duration and would need to taken dedicatedly. More so, in cases where the TB is resistant to certain drugs, the condition (known as ‘drug-resistant’) needs more intense treatment and stronger drugs. Once, through the treatment, approval from the doctor that you are no longer contagious is necessary to ensure you are not spreading the virus to other people.
With approximately more than a million cases of TB in India each year, it is important for everyone to know the signs and symptoms of TB to ensure they can get the needed medical help and ensure their safety and of the others.