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Tuberculosis (TB)

What is TB?

Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious but treatable disease caused by a bacterium (germ) called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. TB usually affects the lungs (‘pulmonary TB’), but it can also affect other parts of the body, such as lymph nodes, brain, kidneys, bowel or bones (‘extrapulmonary TB’).

How is TB spread, and can I catch it easily?

TB spreads from person to person through the air. TB is not easy to catch – it usually takes many hours of close contact with a person who has infectious TB, for close contacts to be infected.

What is the difference between latent TB infection (LTBI) and TB disease?

People with latent TB infection (LTBI) have TB germs in their bodies, but are not sick because the germs are not active. People with LTBI are not infectious to others and do not have symptoms of TB disease. However, they do have a small risk of developing TB disease in the future. People with TB disease (active TB) are sick from TB germs that are active in their body.  People with TB disease of the lungs or throat (larynx) are capable of spreading the germ and are infectious to others. 

What are the symptoms of TB disease? 

The general symptoms of TB disease include unexplained weight loss, unexplained fever, loss of appetite, sweating (especially at night), and feeling tired or weak all the time. The symptoms of TB disease of the lungs also include prolonged coughing (a persistent cough lasting 3 weeks or more, and not getting better), coughing up of blood (or blood in the spit), chest pain and shortness of breath. Anyone who has symptoms of TB disease should see their family doctor (GP) as soon as possible. 

What should I do if I have been exposed to someone with TB disease? 

If you have spent time with someone recently diagnosed with TB disease, especially someone with TB disease of the lungs or throat, you will usually need to be tested. People with TB disease are most likely to spread the infection to those with whom they spend a lot of time. Not all co-workers or schoolmates will need to be tested – it depends on how infectious the person with TB disease is and how much contact they have had with others during the time they have been infectious. Tuberculosis is a notifiable disease in New Zealand and Public Health doctors and nurses make a full assessment of each case to ensure all contacts are identified and followed up appropriately.

How is TB disease treated? 

TB disease can be cured. To be cured, people with TB disease must take special TB medicines regularly for 6 to 12 months (or even longer). 

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