Tuberculosis: What do You Need to Know?
This article was contributed by the Refugee Health Program and TB Prevention and Control Program at the MN Department of Health as part of an ongoing series of health education articles for refugee communities.
March 24 is World TB Day, a day to raise awareness about how TB affects people throughout the world.
TB is a complicated and sometimes confusing disease. This article will answer many common questions about TB.
Why should I be concerned about TB?
Most of the people in Minnesota who get TB are people who moved here from another country.
Many people who come from countries where TB is common can have TB germs in their body without even knowing it. They can get sick from those germs later on in life – often after they move to the United States.
What is TB?
TB is a disease caused by a bacteria (germ) called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. TB is a serious disease but it can be cured with the right medicine.
TB germs usually attack the lungs. But TB germs can also attack other parts of the body, including the brain, bones, kidneys, throat, and lymph nodes.
There are two phases of TB: latent TB infection and active TB disease. Both phases can be treated with medicine.
What is latent TB infection?
Most of the time when TB germs get into a person’s lungs, the body makes the TB germs “go to sleep” by building a wall around them. This is called latent TB infection.
People with latent TB infection do not feel sick. The only way to know if TB germs are in their body is to get a TB skin test or blood test. If you had BCG vaccine, ask your doctor if you can have the TB blood test.
People with latent TB infection can take medicine to kill the TB germs before they “wake up” and cause active TB disease. If these people don’t take medicine, they have about a 1 in 10 chance (10 percent) of getting active TB disease.
What is active TB disease?
Sometimes the TB germs “wake up” and the wall around them breaks. The germs keep growing, spreading, and causing damage to the body until the right medicine is taken. This is called active TB disease.
People with active TB disease can get very sick and spread TB germs to others. Symptoms of active TB disease may include one or more of the following:
• a cough that lasts three weeks or more
• coughing up blood
• pain in the chest
• weight loss
• night sweats
• being very tired for no reason
People with active TB disease must take the right medicine to get well.
Anyone can get sick with TB, but elders, young children, and people with diabetes, HIV, cancer, and other health problems are more likely to get active TB disease than other people. People who live with someone with active TB disease also are more likely to get active TB disease.
How does someone get TB?
TB is spread through the air. When someone with active TB disease in their lungs coughs, sneezes, or talks, TB germs can get into the air and float. Other people close to them can then breathe these TB germs into their lungs. Only people with active TB disease in their lungs can spread TB germs.
A person with active TB disease is most likely to spread TB germs to people who spend a lot of time near them.
You cannot get TB from shaking hands, hugging, sharing food, towels, or other objects, or quick, casual contact, like passing someone on the street or in a store.
Who gets TB?
Anyone can get TB because TB is spread through the air. About 2 billion people (or one-third of the people living in the world) have latent TB infection. About 8 million people get active TB disease every year and 2 million people die from TB every year!
Although people with TB live all over the world, it is most common in Asia, Africa, Mexico, Central America and South America.
Do people in Minnesota get TB?
Yes. Each year, about 150 people in Minnesota are diagnosed with active TB disease. Most of these people were born in countries where TB is common.
Other people at high risk for TB are:
• those who have spent time with someone who had active TB disease
• people that have HIV infection
• people with medical conditions that weaken their immune system
• people who inject illegal drugs
Minnesota’s county and state public health departments work together to help people with TB get well. Medicine for TB is free of cost to anyone who lives in Minnesota.
What can I do to protect myself and my family?
Talk to your doctor about getting tested for TB if you were born in or lived in parts of the world where TB is common. You can see a world map of where TB is at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2010/chapter-5/tuberculosis.aspx.
If you have been coughing for 3 weeks or more, are coughing up blood, have pain in your chest, weight loss, fever, chills, night sweats, or are very tired for no reason, contact your doctor right away.
If you have latent TB infection or active TB disease, you can protect your family and your community by faithfully taking the medicine prescribed by your doctor.
For more information…
Contact your doctor or healthcare provider.
The Minnesota Department of Health has fact sheets about TB in English and 13 other languages including Amharic, Arabic, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Hmong, KaRen, Khmer, Laotian, Oromo, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tibetan, and Vietnamese. Fact sheets are available at: www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/tb/brochures.html.
What Is the Difference Between Latent TB Infection and Active TB Disease?
Latent TB Infection Active TB Disease
TB germs are dormant (asleep) in your body. This phase can last for a very long time – even many years. TB germs are growing and spreading in your body, causing tissue damage.
You don’t look or feel sick. Your chest x-ray usually is normal. You usually feel sick. Common symptoms include a cough lasting more than 3 weeks, weight loss, night sweats, and a fever. You must have a chest x-ray and other tests to find out if you have active TB disease.
You can’t spread TB to other people. If the TB germs are in your lungs you may spread TB to other people by coughing, sneezing, talking, or singing.
Usually treated by taking one medicine (pill) every day for 9 months. Treated by taking three or four medicines for at least 6 months. A nurse will get the medicine for you for free and will help you remember to take it.