Infectious disease doc breaks down TB

Recently, cases of TB or tuberculosis, have been mentioned in the news locally and across the country. Infectious disease specialist Bindiya Bagga, MD, explains the basics of the Tb – including how the disease is and isn’t spread. She also shares what to do if you’ve been exposed to TB.

What is TB or Tuberculosis?

TB or tuberculosis, is a disease caused by a germ (bacterium) called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria can attack any part of your body, but they usually attack the lungs. TB disease was once the leading cause of death in the United States. Although now less commonly seen in the US, there continues to be a low but steady number of confirmed cases of TB reported each year both nationwide and locally in Memphis and Shelby County. Untreated active TB is a serious public health threat.

How is tuberculosis spread?

Tuberculosis germs are spread through the air from one person to another. The germs are put into air when a person with infectious TB coughs, sneezes or in some way spreads germs into the air around them. Exposed people nearby may breathe in these germs and become infected.

TB is not spread by:

  • Shaking someone’s hand
  • Sharing food or drink
  • Touching bed linens or toilet seats
  • Sharing toothbrushes
  • Kissing

Learn more about the ways TB can and cannot be spread.

What should I do if I have been exposed to someone with TB?

People with TB disease are most likely to spread the germ to people they spend time with every day, such as family members, coworkers or classmates. If you have been around someone who has TB disease, you should go to your doctor or your health department for tests. In our community, the TB Control Section at the Shelby County Health Department is responsible for the identification of suspected cases and their contacts. They may contact you for testing if you have been exposed to someone with TB.

There are two kinds of tests done to identify TB infection in the exposed individual, the traditional TB skin test (TST) and the newer TB blood tests (such as Interferon Gamma Release Assay or IGRA), which can be given at your local health department or health care provider. Both these tests measure how your immune system reacts to the germs that cause TB. If you have a positive reaction to either of the tests, you will need further evaluation for active TB disease.

What is the difference between latent TB infection and TB disease?

TB germs can live in an inactive state in your body for a very long time without making you sick. This is called latent TB infection. A TB skin or blood test can help detect the presence of latent TB infection. TB infection is more common than active TB, and has no symptoms but needs treatment to prevent progression to active disease.

People with TB disease are sick from TB germs that are active, meaning they are multiplying and destroying tissue in your body. The germs typically attack lungs but can certainly affect other parts of the body. If people have TB disease, they are usually symptomatic, often contagious and need special drugs to treat their disease.

What are the symptoms of TB?

Symptoms of tuberculosis (TB) depend on where in the body the TB bacteria are growing – which is usually the lungs, but can be in other parts of the body as well. Symptoms of active TB include:

  • Fever, night sweats, chills
  • Chronic cough (lasting > 3weeks)
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood or sputum
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite

Can TB disease be cured?

Yes. If you have latent TB infection, you need to take treatment (usually one anti-TB drug for 6-9 months) to keep from developing the disease.

If you have TB disease, you would take several anti-TB medicines that would cure the disease by killing the TB germs. It takes at least 6 to 12 months of medication to effectively treat disease. If medication is taken properly after one to two weeks, a person with TB disease may no longer be contagious to others. It is very important to take all medication as prescribed or avoid getting sick again and prevent development of resistant TB.

Resources for more information about TB

Shelby County Government

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization

Find TB Resources

infection, prevention