Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2008;78(4):469-470

See related article on tuberculosis.

What is it?

Tuberculosis (too-BERK-you-LOW-sis), or TB for short, is an infection that is caused by certain bacteria (also called germs).

How do I get it?

The bacteria are spread from person to person through small droplets in the air. The droplets are usually released when someone who has TB disease coughs or sneezes. Other people breathe these droplets into their lungs, causing an infection. You can be infected with TB, but not have the disease. If you only have the infection, it is called latent TB infection. Only a few people who are infected (about five to 10 in 100) actually get symptoms. When you have symptoms, it is called active TB disease.

What are the symptoms?

If you are infected, but do not have the disease, you won't have any symptoms. If you have the disease, you may have coughing that lasts longer than two to three weeks, fever, night sweats, or weight loss. You may cough up blood. Without treatment, you can die from the disease.

Who gets it?

Some people are more likely to get TB infection. These include:

  • People who are in close contact with someone who has TB disease

  • People born in another country who have been in the United States for five years or less, especially children younger than four years

  • People who live or work where there are many people, like jails, nursing homes, or homeless shelters

  • Health care workers with high-risk patients

  • Infants or children who are around adults that are at high risk

Some people who have TB infection are more likely to get TB disease. These include:

  • People who have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

  • People who have had TB infection for two years or less

  • Children younger than four years

  • People with a weak immune system (for example, those with diabetes or cancer)

Can it be treated?

Yes, there are medicines that treat TB. Talk to your doctor about what medicines are available. Your doctor can also tell you about the benefits and length of treatment, possible side effects of the medicine, and the cost of treatment.

How can I keep from spreading it to other people?

If you have TB infection, but not the disease, you can't spread it to other people. But, your doctor will still treat you so that you don't get TB disease.

If you have TB disease, you should wear a mask over your nose and mouth to help protect other people from getting the disease. Your doctors and nurses may also wear masks. Once you start taking medicine for TB disease, it should take two to three weeks before you can't spread TB anymore. Your doctor will let you know when it is safe for you to take off your mask around others.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Jewish Medical and Research Center

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