What Is Tuberculosis (TB)?

Tuberculosis, or TB, is a highly contagious and potentially fatal lung disease. It originates as a bacterial infection and is spread from person to person through the air by sneezing and coughing. Though more common in the developing than in the developed world, tuberculosis experienced a resurgence in the U.S. and other industrialized nations with the advent of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS, which reduce the body’s resistance to latent forms of the disease. Effective treatments exist when TB is promptly and properly diagnosed.

Tuberculosis is one of the primary sources of infectious disease worldwide. If you have tubercular symptoms, or contact someone who has an active form of the disease, make arrangements to see your Baptist Health physician as soon as possible.

The following are key facts about Tuberculosis:

  • Tuberculosis, or TB, is an infectious lung disease.
  • The bacteria that cause tuberculosis is called mycobacterium tuberculosis.
  • Tuberculosis is highly contagious.
  • TB is spread through the air by sneezing and coughing.
  • TB is one of the top causes of death in the world.
  • Multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) is a recognized public health crisis.

What Are the Symptoms of Tuberculosis?

There are both active and latent forms of tuberculosis. Active forms are symptomatic, meaning that infected persons give outward evidence of having the disease. Tubercular symptoms include:

  • Chronic coughing lasting three weeks or more
  • Expulsion of blood and phlegm (sputum) from the lungs while coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Night sweats
  • Fever and chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss (which is why TB is sometimes called consumption)

Tuberculosis targets the lungs for infection but can spread to other parts of the body as well. Symptoms vary in the non-pulmonary organs; for example, tubercular kidneys often produce bloody urine.

Common effects of tuberculosis on the body include a persistent chronic cough, fatigue, night sweats, and sudden weight loss. Please talk to your doctor about any of these symptoms that could indicate tuberculosis.

Those most at risk for tuberculosis are individuals with a weakened immune system. Age, general health, and medication can all impact the strength of your immune system.


Tuberculosis is caused by a microorganism with the scientific name of Myobacterium tuberculosis. M. tuberculosis spreads from infected to non-infected persons by means of airborne droplets that are released by:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Spitting
  • Speaking, singing, and other forms of vocalization

No one is free from the possibility of tuberculosis but there are several factors which increase the likelihood of coming into contact with the infectious agent and/or developing symptoms:

  • Traveling to regions of the world, including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, where TB is more prevalent
  • Poverty and an associated lack of medical care
  • Substance abuse, including intravenous drugs
  • Smoking and tobacco use
  • Exposure to TB patients in a healthcare or residential-care facility
  • A degraded immune system, caused by aging, malnutrition, or chronic medical conditions such as AIDS, cancer, or diabetes

Avoiding tuberculosis is largely dependent on avoiding those circumstances which increase the risk of infection.

What Types of Tuberculosis Are There?

There are two forms of tuberculosis, only one of which requires medical treatment.

Latent Tuberculosis

If you have latent tuberculosis, it means that your body is hosting the TB pathogen but is, at least temporarily, symptom free. In other words, your immune system is strong enough to resist the disease’s activation and spread. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as much as one quarter of the world’s population may have the latent form of tuberculosis. Persons with latent tuberculosis are not contagious.

Active Tuberculosis

A person with active tuberculosis has been infected by TB-causing germs and is also exhibiting symptoms. Perhaps ten percent of individuals with latent tuberculosis will turn active at some point. Anyone with an active case of the disease can spread it to others. 

There are different forms of tuberculosis. One form is drug-resistant tuberculosis, a type that is resistant to treatment. In this case, your doctor may prescribe different types, dosages, and combinations of medication. Drug-resistant tuberculosis requires a longer period of treatment. Therefore, you may experience more side effects than someone with a shorter treatment regimen.

How Is Tuberculosis Diagnosed?

Diagnosing tuberculosis is a multi-step process. Your physician will start by giving you a physical exam. This will include checking for swollen lymph glands and listening to any noises made by your lungs when you breathe. Your doctor may then test for tuberculosis using one or more of these methods:

  • Skin test: Skin tests for tuberculosis are similar to those for allergies. A tiny amount of PPD tuberculin is injected into your skin. If this results in a reaction, you may have a TB infection, though false positives are a shortcoming of this method.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests are an increasingly common means of assessing the presence of a tubercular infection. A sample of your blood will be analyzed for evidence of Myobacterium tuberculosis.
  • Sputum tests: Sputum is mucous that is coughed up from the chest. As with a blood sample, it can be tested for evidence of the tubercular pathogen. 
  • Imaging: Chest X-rays and CT scans can provide visual evidence of changes in the lungs that result from the development of tuberculosis. For example, white spots that sometimes appear in diagnostic images can be evidence that your body’s immune system is attempting to isolate and fight off a serious bacterial infection.

Prognosis and Complications

Generally, the prognosis for treated tuberculosis is good. Your specific prognosis depends on many factors such as your general health, age, the severity of your condition, and how closely you follow treatment protocols.

Untreated, tuberculosis is sometimes life-threatening. You might experience a range of tuberculosis complications. These complications can impact different parts of your body.

Tuberculosis complications can include:

  • Liver or kidney issues—Your liver and kidneys help your body get rid of waste. When they do not work properly, it can negatively impact your health.
  • Heart problems—A rare complication of TB is an infection of the tissues around your heart. It might cause swelling and fluid to collect. When this happens, the heart is forced to work harder. 
  • Spinal pain—Tuberculosis can cause back pain and stiffness.
  • Brain membrane swelling—Meningitis is swelling of the membranes that cover your brain. This can cause a long-term or frequent headache. It also may lead to other unhealthy mental changes.
  • Joint injury—Arthritis that happens because of tuberculosis usually affects the bones near your hips and knees.


Antibiotics are the frontline defense against tuberculosis. There are, however, several strains of the disease, some of which are resistant to certain medications. This means that physicians often deploy a combination of drugs to combat a tubercular infection.

The pharmaceutical treatment of tuberculosis can last up to nine months. It is critical to long-term success against the disease to complete the full course of treatment, regardless of the length of time involved.

Tubercular medications can have serious side effects. Liver-injury symptoms, including dark urine and jaundice, are common.

Treatment of active tuberculosis is often successful if the disease is diagnosed in its early stages and the patient completes the full course of medications required to neutralize its effects.

Tuberculosis? Get the Care You Need from Baptist Health

Tuberculosis is a serious illness and a leading cause of death worldwide. If you or a loved one is exhibiting the symptoms of this disease, don’t delay in seeking medical care.

Next Steps with MyChart

Discover MyChart, a free patient portal that combines your Baptist Health medical records into one location. Schedule appointments, review lab results, financials, and more! If you have questions, give us a call.