Most of us have been tested for TB, also known as tuberculosis, for a job, school, or travel. Tuberculosis is all around us, and it was actually the leading cause of death in the 20th century. We readily take this skin or blood test, but don’t always know what certain conditions do to our body if we have them. This bacteria, myobacterium tuberculosis, is not entirely easy to catch. When it does strike, TB affects the lungs. It can also spread to the brain and spine.
TB is spread through the air. Just like the germs of the flu or common cold, if an infected person coughs or sneezes you can catch these germs. It is caught by breathing the bacteria, not from shaking someone’s hand, kissing, or sharing a drink. When you breathe in the germs they grow (slowly) in the lungs. The key difference is that these germs take a long time to spread and you have to be in contact for extended periods of time with the germ to take its action. That is why we typically get tested when we will be in contact with people repeatedly, such as at work or school or on a team.
This disease has two types. Active TB means that the germs are in your body multiplying and making you sick. You can then spread tuberculosis to others. Latent TB means that the germs are in your body, but they are not spreading. You may not even know you have this because there are no symptoms. However, the disease is alive in your body and could decide to become active. Antibiotics can lower the risk for this activation. 90% of active TB cases arise from latent TB that decided to infect.
There are two types of tests for TB. The skin test is done by injecting tuberculin into the skin on the arm. The person returns to the testing site within 48 to 72 hours to determine if the outcome is positive or negative. A blood test can also be sent to a lab to be tested.
The signs of TB when active include night sweats, chills, fever, weight loss, coughing up blood, or chest pain. It is also marked by a cough that persists (usually longer than 3 months). Persons that are more susceptible to the disease are those who are undergoing chemotherapy, have diabetes, have HIV or AIDS, have a low body weight, or those who are malnourished. This is mostly due to a suppressed immune system. A healthy immune system can ward off TB, but even children and babies are at high risk because they don’t have a fully developed defense system yet.
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several drugs to treat the disease. There are currently 10 drug types that, when taken for approximately 6 to 9 months, can help the bacteria from stop growing.
We often times hold out our arm and have our blood drawn and leave the doctor’s office without knowing exactly what we were being tested for. Only when the results pop up positive do we pay attention. Even though tuberculosis is a rare disease, it can be fatal. It is important to be tested and always take note of your environment. Hand washing, covering your mouth when coughing, avoiding others who are coughing a lot, etc... the basics our parents taught us about “cooties," are actually important life lessons.