TB (Tuberculosis)

What is tuberculosis?
What causes tuberculosis?
What are the signs and symptoms of tuberculosis?
What are the possible tests or procedures to detect tuberculosis?
What are the possible treatments for tuberculosis?
What is the future plan if you have tuberculosis?

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious infectious disease which can be life-threatening. TB affects the lungs and other parts of the body. 

Tuberculosis can either be an inactive infection (or latent) or an active disease.

Inactive (or latent) TB infection 

Inactive (or latent) TB infection is where a person is infected with the bacteria but does not show symptoms or illness. This is because the bacteria are inactive (or ‘sleeping’), and therefore they are not contagious (can’t infect other people).

A Tuberculin Skin Test (or Mantoux Test) or a blood test (QuantiFERON Gold) can detect the inactive form of TB.

Active TB disease

Active TB disease is where a person is infected with the bacteria and develops symptoms – either soon after being infected, or years later as a result of decreased immunity or other reasons.

People at greater risk of developing active TB are:

  • Close contacts of someone with active TB (for example those that live in the same house)
  • Older adults
  • People taking medications that suppress the immune system
  • People with illnesses such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
  • Smokers
  • Young children.

A person with active TB is potentially infectious to others, especially before they start treatment. Fortunately, active TB can be successfully cured in most cases after several months of antibiotic therapy.

What causes tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis is spread from person to person via the lungs. You cannot catch tuberculosis from everyday items such as a cup, clothes or phone. A person who breathes in air containing the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis (by close contact with someone who has active TB disease) can become infected as the bacteria enters their lungs.

In some people, the immune system keeps the TB infection under control so it cannot multiply and grow. However, in others, the bacteria can escape the immune system and spread through the lungs or to other parts of the body such as the lymphatic system, kidneys or brain.

Some people are more at risk than others for TB, such as people who:

  • Are born in countries or areas where Tuberculosis is common, such as India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa, Nigeria, The Philippines and Bangladesh
  • Have a chronic illness that impairs immune function (such as HIV)
  • Live or spend a lot of time close to people who are infected (such as a family member)
  • Smoke
  • Take medications that affect immunity (chemotherapy and corticosteroid drugs).

What are the signs and symptoms of tuberculosis?

Symptoms of TB can be different for each person. Typically, the lungs are the most affected site. Some common symptoms of TB include:

  • A cough with blood-stained sputum (mucus) that has been present for three weeks or longer
  • Chest pains
  • Chronic tiredness
  • High temperature
  • Night sweats
  • Poor appetite 
  • Swelling or pain in the affected areas (such as the lymph nodes in the neck or under the jaw)
  • Weight loss that cannot be explained by diet and exercise.

What are the possible tests or procedures to detect tuberculosis?

To diagnose TB, your doctor will take your medical history and arrange several tests, including: 

  • A tuberculin skin test using the Mantoux procedure – is a standard skin test used to test for the presence of TB bacteria
  • A sample of mucus (sputum) – which can be tested for TB bacteria
  • Blood tests -  the Interferon Gamma Release Assay (IGRA) is a blood test used to see whether a person has been infected with the bacteria causing TB. The IGRA test measures the immune response to the TB bacteria
  • Chest X-ray – provides images of the lungs to see if an infection is present.

What are the possible treatments for tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis can be cured, with most people making a full recovery after treatment.

Latent TB may require a prescribed course of preventative medication or regular chest X-rays. The choice will depend on the risk of TB developing and the person’s preference.

Active TB requires a specific combination of antibiotics for at least six months. Treatment should be routinely checked by your doctor to ensure the full course of treatment is completed and to help manage any side effects. 

What is the future plan if you have tuberculosis?

As long as you take all prescribed medication as directed by your doctor, you can expect to make a full recovery from TB. People with TB usually return to their daily routines once they have passed the contagious period of disease. 

St Vincent's Hospital Chest Clinic (TB Services)

St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney provides services to assess, evaluate and treat TB.

For more information visit our SVH Chest Clinic (TB Services) Information page or contact the SVH Chest Clinic (TB Services).

For more information visit the NSW Health Tuberculosis page.