By Dr. Zulfikar Bux
Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine
Tuberculosis, also called TB, is an infection caused by bacteria. It usually affects the lungs, but it can spread to the joints, bladder, spine, brain and other parts of the body. The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes.
The disease is usually undetected in its initial phases as it tends to manifest with a cough. Persons will usually treat the cough with cough suppressants. Over time, they become weak as it begins to overcome their body.
Today we will shed some light on TB to help with its early detection and hopefully, contribute to minimizing the dangerous complications associated with it.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF TUBERCULOSIS?
You won’t have any symptoms of tuberculosis unless you have active TB. The symptoms of active TB include:
• Cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer, sometimes bloody
• Chest pain
• Unintended weight loss
• Loss of appetite
• Chills and night sweats
If TB affects your joints, you may develop pain that feels like arthritis. If TB affects your bladder, it may hurt to go to the bathroom and there may be blood in your urine. TB of the spine can cause back pain and leg paralysis. TB of the brain can cause headaches, nausea and brain damage if left untreated.
HOW IS TB DIAGNOSED?
The most commonly used method to check for tuberculosis is the PPD skin test. A PPD skin test is also called a Mantoux test. If you have a positive PPD, it means you have been exposed to a person who has tuberculosis and you have been infected with the bacteria that cause the disease. If your PPD skin test is positive, you will likely have a chest X-ray and a physical exam to find out whether you have active TB and are currently contagious and able to spread the disease to other people. It usually takes only a few days to tell whether you’re contagious. Most people with a positive skin test are not contagious.
IF I HAVE A POSITIVE PPD TEST, DO I HAVE ACTIVE TUBERCULOSIS?
Not necessarily. A person can be infected with the bacteria that cause tuberculosis but not actually have active tuberculosis. Of the people who are infected with the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, only a few (about 10%) go on to develop active TB. Healthy people who get infected with the tuberculosis bacteria are often able to fight off the infection and do not develop active TB. The bacteria are dormant (inactive) in their lungs. If the body is not able to contain the infection and the bacteria continue to grow, active tuberculosis develops.
WOULD I KNOW IF I DEVELOPED ACTIVE TUBERCULOSIS?
There is a slight chance you might not know that you have developed active tuberculosis. Tuberculosis bacteria can grow in your body without making you feel sick. However, most people who have active tuberculosis experience symptoms. If you develop active tuberculosis, you will need to be monitored medically (regular checkups and probably some chest X-rays) for the rest of your life to make sure you stay free of the tuberculosis disease, even after you have taken the full course of tuberculosis medicine.
HOW IS TUBERCULOSIS TREATED?
Tuberculosis is treated with antibiotic medicine. The medicine your doctor recommends will depend on your age, your health, whether your TB is active or latent, and whether your TB is drug resistant (meaning that certain medicines won’t work on it).
You will need to take your TB medicine for 6-9 months. Your doctor will tell you exactly how and when to take your medicine, and for how long. It is very important that you follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. Keep your medicine in a place where you will always see it. Take it at the same time every day. Don’t skip doses or stop taking your medicine. This could make your TB harder to treat.
If left untreated, TB can kill you. It can also damage your organs permanently leaving you with significant disability. If you have symptoms of TB, do not hesitate to visit one of the many TB clinics we have here in Guyana.
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