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Tuberculosis (TB) Disease: Symptoms and Risk Factors

Doctor and patient looking at chest x-ray

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by bacteria that are spread through the air from person to person. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal. People infected with TB bacteria who are not sick may still need treatment to prevent TB disease from developing in the future. Learn to recognize the symptoms of TB disease and find out if you are at risk.

Anyone Can Get TB

At first, it felt like a bad cold. Then came a constant cough and night sweats. After going to the hospital for what she thought was severe pneumonia, Nicole was soon diagnosed with TB. “I didn’t really understand very much about TB at all, and I didn’t realize at that time that anyone can get it,” Nicole says.

Thomas, TB Survivor

Thomas, TB Survivor

Woman coughing into arm

A cough lasting 3 weeks or longer is a symptom of TB disease.

TB Diseases: Only the Tip of the Iceberg

People with latent TB infection do not have symptoms, but may still need treatment.

Thomas had a similar experience. When he started feeling sick his doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. A couple of months later he was still having night sweats, didn’t have an appetite, and felt extremely tired all the time. At his next hospital visit he had a chest x-ray and was told he had TB.

“Most people think that, okay, it’s out here but it will never happen to me. I know people are still testing for it but I didn’t think it was big enough to reach me,” says Thomas.

Anyone can get TB. People with TB disease can be found in every state; in rural areas and cities; in schools, workplaces, homes; and in many other places where people are in close contact. Learn to recognize the symptoms of TB disease and find out if you are at risk.

Latent TB Infection and TB Disease

The bacteria that cause TB are spread through the air from person to person when a person with TB disease coughs, speaks, or sings. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected. There are two types of TB conditions: latent TB infection and TB disease.

TB bacteria can live in the body without making you sick. This is called latent TB infection . In most people who breathe in TB bacteria and become infected, the body is able to fight the bacteria to stop them from growing. People with latent TB infection do not feel sick, do not have any symptoms, and cannot spread TB bacteria to others.

If TB bacteria become active in the body and multiply, the person will go from having latent TB infection to being sick with TB disease. For this reason, people with latent TB infection are often prescribed treatment to prevent them from developing TB disease.

People with TB disease usually have symptoms and may spread TB bacteria to others.

TB bacteria most commonly grow in the lungs, and can cause symptoms such as:

  • A bad cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer
  • Pain in the chest
  • Coughing up blood or sputum (mucus from deep inside the lungs)

Other symptoms of TB disease may include:

  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • No appetite
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Sweating at night

TB disease can be treated by taking medicine. It is very important that people who have TB disease are treated, finish the medicine, and take the drugs exactly as prescribed. If they stop taking the drugs too soon, they can become sick again; if they do not take the drugs correctly, the TB bacteria that are still alive may become resistant to those drugs. TB that is resistant to drugs is harder and more expensive to treat.

Eliminating TB in the United States

Millions of people in the United States have latent TB infection. Without treatment, they are at risk for developing TB disease. Treatment of latent TB infection is essential to controlling and eliminating TB in the United States. If you think you may have latent TB infection, TB disease, or were exposed to someone with TB disease, contact your health care provider or your TB control office. You and your health-care provider can discuss your options for testing and treatment.

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