Understanding, preventing and treating TB

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Tuberculosis, more commonly referred to as TB, was regarded as a medieval illness for a long time. Only in recent years has the impact and the spread of TB become a matter of worldwide health concerns. This not-so-silent killer is one of the top ten causes of death worldwide, which is why TB awareness is more important than ever.

What causes TB?

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by the spread of the bacterium Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. This bacterial disease is most known for its effect on the lungs, leading to respiratory problems, weight-loss, chest pains and exhaustion. But TB can also attack other parts of the body, such as the brain, the spine and the skin.

TB is spread the same way as flu or a common cold; when someone with the infection sneezes or coughs and someone nearby inhales the tiny droplets that are expelled, the bacteria are passed along. However, TB doesn’t spread as fast and as easily as flu – you would have to be exposed to an infected person for prolonged periods of time. So, if someone carrying the virus is in the queue at the supermarket and sneezes, it’s highly unlikely for you to become infected.

Not everyone who carries the TB bacteria is infectious either. People who carry the so-called extra-pulmonary TB bacteria (a TB infection occurring outside the lungs) do not spread the infection.

Symptoms and treatment

TB occurs in two main forms – pulmonary and extra-pulmonary TB. The general symptoms include appetite and weight loss, fevers, night sweats and extreme fatigue. Most TB cases infect the lung, which adds a persistent cough, which brings up phlegm that can be bloody as well as increasingly worsening breathlessness to the symptoms.

Extra-pulmonary TB affects areas outside the lungs such as bones, joints, glands, the nervous system or the internal organs. Symptoms of an extra-pulmonary TB infection can include persistently swollen glands, abdominal pains, pain in the affected joints or bones, seizures, confusion and a persistent headache.

Both pulmonary and extra-pulmonary TB can be diagnosed through a series of tests, which includes X-rays, scans and samples of various bodily fluids. If your GP suspects you are infected with TB, he may refer you to a TB specialist for these checks and treatment.

While TB is fatal if left untreated, treated cases of TB rarely lead to death. It is important to note at this point that TB can be cured quite easily. Most people also don’t need to be admitted to hospital during treatment, which consists of a series of courses of antibiotics taken over several months. After a few weeks, most people feel better and are no longer infectious. Discontinuing the antibiotics or skipping courses could lead to the bacteria becoming resistant to the treatment, so it is recommended to complete the full course of antibiotics to be cured.

Who is at risk of contracting TB?

Anyone can get TB, but in most healthy people, the immune system is easily able to destroy the bacteria that cause TB. Those who face the greatest risk of contracting TB include people who are in prolonged close contact with people carrying the infection, such as family members, have lived in areas with high rates of TB infections, have a weakened immune system due to factors such as old age, HIV, chemotherapy etc. and people who are in poor health due to lifestyle problems such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Common misconceptions

It’s important to debunk common myths and misconceptions around a disease that is often misunderstood. Some of these myths include:

  • TB is a sure death sentence, there is no cure. This isn’t true, TB can be cured easily with a 6 to 8- month course of antibiotics. Death occurs if the disease is left untreated, or if the treatment is discontinued prematurely. After a few weeks of treatment, patients are no longer infectious.
  • Only people with HIV get TB. No, anyone can contract TB. Whilst people with HIV may be at a higher risk of contracting TB because HIV weakens the immune system, TB isn’t an HIV-only disease and can affect anyone.
  • TB is a medieval disease, why bother? TB is a great concern across the globe. Due to lack of awareness and lack of treatment, TB still remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide.
  • No symptoms means no TB. Not quite. If you have an infected family member or suspect you have contracted TB but show no symptoms, you may have contracted latent TB. This means the bacteria is there, but no symptoms are showing yet. In these cases, it can take years for the TB symptoms to develop. So, if you spent prolonged periods of time around an infected person or have lived in a high-risk area, it is advisable to visit your GP for a test.

Avoiding misconceptions about diseases and being well-informed can save lives!