A once-deadly disease, tuberculosis can now be treated. Learn about the signs and symptoms of TB, how the disease is treated, how to restrict the spread of TB, and more.

What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by a germ called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It most commonly affects the lungs, though the germ can affect almost any tissue or organ in the body. Not everyone who is exposed to TB develops the illness. Usually the body is able to fight the germs and render them inactive and thus stop them from growing; however, the germs remain alive in the body. This is called latent TB infection.

Symptoms and Signs of Tuberculosis

Latent TB cannot easily be detected without tests. People with latent TB infection:
Have no symptoms
Cannot spread TB to others
May develop active TB disease later

However, if a person’s immune system is weakened, the chance of developing active TB disease is higher. People who have underlying conditions such as diabetes, HIV infection, cancers and kidney disease are at greater risk. A person with TB disease has active germs plus signs of illness.

Some of the symptoms of TB include: 
A cough lasting longer than three weeks
Coughing blood
Night sweats
Loss of weight

Tuberculosis Complications

Infection with TB can cause permanent lung damage if not treated early. It can also spread to other parts of the body, such as the bone, intestine, brain and central nervous system, where it can lead to life-threatening complications. The most serious complication, however, is when TB infection recurs and the strains causing the disease are resistant to multiple anti-TB medications.

Diagnosis of Tuberculosis 

If you have a cough that persists longer than three weeks or any of the other symptoms, see your doctor immediately. If you know of someone who has the same symptoms, encourage him to/her to go as well. Your doctor will ask you to go for a chest X-ray. You may also be referred to a specialist for further investigations.

The common tests for TB are:
A chest X-ray which can show whether TB has damaged the lungs
A tuberculin skin test (Mantoux test) which shows if a person is likely to be infected with TB
A sputum test for smear and culture of TB germs

How Is TB Spread? 

TB is spread through the air when a person who is infected with TB in their lungs coughs or sneezes. People who have close day-to-day contact with an infected person (including household members, office colleagues or classmates) are at risk of being infected.

There is minimal risk from occasional contact and virtually no risk from single contact with an infected person. TB affecting other organs is usually not infectious, as the germs are not spread into the air.

Treating TB 

TB is treatable with anti-TB medication, which usually comprises a combination of drugs to be taken for at least six to nine months. It is important that patients complete the entire course of anti-TB drugs even if the symptoms resolve and they feel better. If they don’t, they may not be cured; the TB germ in the body may develop a resistance to the drugs, which will make it more difficult to treat.

Preventing the Spread of TB in Hospitals

If you are diagnosed with active TB in the lungs and require hospitalisation, you will be nursed in a single room and staff will wear protective masks when attending to you. You must stay in the room so that you do not spread the TB germ to others. You need to wear a mask if you are transported outside the room for X-rays or any other procedures. 

Once you start taking anti-TB drugs, the number of TB germs will gradually decrease. 

Contact with TB Patients

TB patients are allowed to have visitors, though they will need to wear a mask to protect themselves before going into the patient’s room. Visitors should wash hands with soap and water before entering and leaving the room.

However, children under 12 years old or visitors with low immunity are advised not to visit you while you are hospitalised with TB.

Preventing the Spread of TB Germs at Home 

During the treatment, it is important that you:
Take your medication regularly
Avoid going to crowded places
Always cough and sneeze into a tissue, and throw the used tissues into a rubbish bin; wash your hands with soap and water afterwards
Ensure that any household surfaces that are contaminated with your phlegm are cleaned with disinfectant

Note that masks are not necessary for you or for anyone who visits your home.

Your close contacts (e.g. family, office colleagues) will receive a letter from the TB Control Unit (TBCU) informing them to go for screening at TBCU @ Moulmein Road. It is advisable that they are screened for evidence of infection, and they may need to take anti-TB drugs to prevent themselves from developing active TB. 

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