Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection spread through inhaling tiny droplets from coughs or sneezes of an infected person. It mainly affects the lungs, but can affect other parts of the body. TB is a serious condition, but it can be cured if treated with the right antibiotics.
Symptoms of TB
Tuberculosis mainly affects the lungs, but it can affect any part of the body. This can include the tummy (abdomen) glands, bones and nervous system.
Typical symptoms of TB include:
- a persistent cough that lasts more than three weeks and usually brings up phlegm, which may be bloody
- weight loss
- night sweats
- high temperature (fever)
- tiredness and fatigue
- loss of appetite
- swellings in the neck
You should see your GP if you have a cough that lasts more than three weeks or you cough up blood.
Causes of TB
TB is a bacterial infection. TB that affects the lungs (pulmonary TB) is the most contagious type. It usually only spreads after lengthy exposure to someone with the illness.
Several tests are used to diagnose tuberculosis (TB). These will depend on the type of TB suspected.
Your GP may refer you to a TB specialist for testing and treatment if they think you have TB.
With treatment, TB can almost always be cured. A course of antibiotics will usually need to be taken for six months.
If you're diagnosed with pulmonary TB, you'll be contagious for about two to three weeks into your course of treatment.
You won't usually need to be isolated during this time. But it's important to take some basic precautions to stop the infection spreading to your family and friends.
- stay away from work, school or college until your healthcare team advises you it's safe to return
- always cover your mouth when coughing, sneezing or laughing
- carefully dispose of any used tissues in a sealed plastic bag
- open windows when possible to make sure there's a good supply of fresh air in the areas where you spend time
- avoid sleeping in the same room as other people
If you're in close contact with someone who has TB, you may need to have tests to see whether you're also infected.
Vaccination for TB
The BCG vaccine offers protection against TB. It is recommended for babies, children and adults under the age of 35 who are considered to be at risk of catching TB.
The BCG vaccine isn't routinely given to anyone over the age of 35 as there's no evidence that it works for people in this age group.
At-risk groups include:
- children living in areas with high rates of TB
- people with close family members from countries with high TB rates
- people going to live and work with local people for more than three months in an area with high rates of TB
If you're a healthcare worker or health service employee and you come into contact with patients or clinical specimens, you should also have a TB vaccination, if:
- you haven't been previously vaccinated (you don't have a BCG scar or the relevant documents)
- the results of a Mantoux skin test or a TB interferon-gamma release assay (IGRA) blood test are negative
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
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