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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Tuberculosis (TB) - Topic Overview

Most of the time when people are first infected with TB, the disease is so mild that they don't even know they have it. People with latent TB don't have symptoms unless the disease becomes active.

Symptoms of active TB may include:

  • A cough that brings up thick, cloudy, and sometimes bloody mucus from the lungs (called sputum) for more than 2 weeks.
  • Tiredness and weight loss.
  • Night sweats and a fever.
  • A rapid heartbeat.
  • Swelling in the neck (when lymph nodes in the neck are infected).
  • Shortness of breath and chest pain (in rare cases).

Doctors usually find latent TB by doing a tuberculin skin test. During the skin test, a doctor or nurse will inject TB antigens under your skin. If you have TB bacteria in your body, within 2 days you will get a red bump where the needle went into your skin. The test can't tell when you became infected with TB or if it can be spread to others. A blood test also can be done to look for TB.

To find pulmonary TB, doctors test a sample of mucus from the lungs (sputum) to see if there are TB bacteria in it. Doctors sometimes do other tests on sputum and blood or take a chest X-ray to help find pulmonary TB.

To find extrapulmonary TB, doctors can take a sample of tissue (biopsy) to test. Or you might get a CT scan or an MRI so the doctor can see pictures of the inside of your body.

Most of the time, doctors combine four antibiotics to treat active TB. It's important to take the medicine for active TB for at least 6 months. Almost all people are cured if they take their medicine just like their doctors say to take it. If tests still show an active TB infection after 6 months, then treatment continues for another 2 or 3 months. If the TB bacteria are resistant to several antibiotics (multidrug-resistant TB), then treatment may be needed for a year or longer.

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