Colds and flu are not the only respiratory illness passed from person to person. Tuberculosis (TB), another contagious disease, is not caused by a virus, but by bacteria that attacks the lungs. Like the cold or flu virus, the bacteria that cause TB can be spread through the air. This usually happens when someone with an active case of TB coughs or sneezes. Bacteria trapped in droplets expelled from the TB patient’s nose or mouth can be inhaled by people in the surrounding area, infecting them.

Symptoms of active TB disease include chest pain and a long-lasting cough that is often accompanied by bloody phlegm. Not everyone who

Inhales the bacteria that causes TB develops an active case of the disease, however. In most people, their immune system detects and destroys the TB bacteria before it starts growing. However, the bacteria may still be alive in these people’s bodies. This is called a latent TB infection. Latent means that the bacteria are present in the body, but the patient has no symptoms. Because there are no symptoms, a person with a latent TB infection does not feel sick. They also cannot spread the disease. Many people with a latent TB infection live their entire lives not knowing that the bacteria are present in their bodies.

Untreated or serious cases of tuberculosis can cause lesions, or damaged areas, in the lungs.

However, it is possible for the latent bacteria to become active. The bacteria in a person with active TB disease is living, dividing, and spreading throughout the person’s body. If it is not treated, the bacteria can spread beyond the lungs to other vital organs such as the kidneys, spine, and brain.

At one time, TB was the leading cause of death in the United States. But in the 1940s, doctors discovered antibiotics (medications that can destroy or slow the growth of bacteria) that could kill the TB bacteria.

The disease and the number of TB cases declined—until 1985. Between 1985 and 1992, the number of cases of TB increased. This increase was a result of budget cuts to programs that were designed to control TB, the first appearance of the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in America, and drug-resistant strains of TB that were not killed by regular antibiotics. By the early 1990s, however, the number of active TB cases started to decrease. This was due to increased funding to TB control programs and the discovery of ways to prevent the spread of the virus that causes AIDS. Fortunately, the number of active TB cases has been dropping ever since.

However, TB is still a problem in the United States today. The bacteria that cause TB die very slowly. In fact, it can take as long as six months to kill all of the TB bacteria in the body. Once treatment is started, however, TB patients often start to feel better in just a couple of weeks. Because their symptoms have disappeared, some patients believe that it is safe to stop taking the antibiotics prescribed to control their disease. But it is not. When a patient stops taking antibiotics too early, not all of the bacteria are killed. This can cause the patient to relapse (all of their symptoms come back) and it can leave behind drug-resistant bacteria that can be much harder to treat.

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