Know how to stay safe from TB

Active tuberculosis is horribly contagious, and the WHO says a third of the planet’s population carries the bacteria responsible for it. Anyone can get it, but some are at more risk than others.

TB is spread from person to person through microscopic droplets in the air, released through sneezing and coughing but also when infected people speak, laugh and even sing. Having said that, it isn’t easy to catch, especially from a stranger. Your immune system kicks in and prevents you from becoming ill. It’s easier to catch when you’re in constant contact with someone, for example at work or home.

If someone has active TB and they’ve had treatment for two weeks, they are not usually infectious any more.

Latent and active TB

  • Latent TB – the bacteria stay inactive in your body and you don’t get symptoms. It isn’t contagious but can turn into active TB
  • Active TB – This makes you ill and can spread to others, either quickly after infection or years later

Symptoms of active TB

  • A cough lasting 3 weeks or more, and coughing up blood
  • Chest pain and pain when breathing
  • Unexpected loss of weight
  • Tiredness, fever, night sweats, chills and a lost appetite
  • Tuberculosis can also affect the kidneys, spine and brain, all with their own signs and symptoms

When to see a doctor

If you experience any of the above see your doctor. The symptoms can be caused by a variety of conditions as well as TB, and it’s better safe than sorry.

Special TB risks

  • TB in HIV patients – HIV patients are more vulnerable than average and many people with the disease get infected. Because HIV suppresses your immune system, it’s difficult for the body to fight the infection. If you have HIV you might be at a particular risk.
  • Drug-resistant TB – Over-use of antibiotics has led to drug resistant strains of the disease, which are very difficult to treat.
  • Weakened immune system – If your resistance is low, you’re at an extra risk. This can include people with diabetes, serious kidney disease plus some cancers and their treatment,for example chemotherapy. If you’re taking drugs to prevent transplant rejection, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease or psoriasis, the same goes. You’re also at more risk if you are malnourished, very young or very old.
  • Travel to at-risk areas – The risk is higher when you live in or travel to countries with a high risk of the disease or the drug-resistant strain, including sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Russia and Pakistan.
  • Poverty – A lack of general medical care and a lack of resources often puts people in poor areas at extra risk.
  • Substance abuse – Mainlining drugs and alcohol abuse both put you at greater risk of TB, as does smoking tobacco.
  • Healthcare and volunteer workers – Frequent contact with people who are ill increases your chances of exposure to TB bacteria, as does working in residential care or in a refugee camp or shelter.

TB treatment

Without treatment, tuberculosis can be fatal. Complications include serious back pain, joint damage, meningitis, liver issues, kidney problems and heart disorders.

TB treatment takes much longer than other kinds of bacterial infection. You’ll need to take antibiotics for at least 6-9 months, sometimes longer. It depends on your age, state of health, whether your TB is latent or active, whether it’s a drug resistant strain and which parts of your body it has infected.

New research hints that shorter term treatment, 4 months rather than 9, using a combination of drugs, might keep latent TB from developing into the active form. The research continues.

How to avoid TB

  • If you live with someone who has active TB, encourage them to behave in the safest possible ways
  • Don’t spend too much time in an enclosed space with an infected person until at least 2 weeks after their treatment starts
  • Always use protective measures like masks if you work in a place where people have TB

What about the TB vaccine?

The bacille Calmette-Guerin, BCG, is widely used to immunise British children as infants. But it isn’t effective in adults. The rise of the drug resistant version of TB means there are dozens of new TB vaccines in the pipeline, currently being tested.

Any questions?

If you’re not sure how to stay safe from TB abroad, we can talk things over with you and provide the best advice for your circumstances.