What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, known as ‘TB’ is a bacterial infection. Usually it affects the lungs, but it can also affect the kidneys, bones, gut, lymph glands, bone and brain. Someone can be infected with TB bacteria, but not be aware of it, not become unwell and not experience symptoms. This is known as ‘latent TB’. People with latent TB are not infectious and cannot pass the bacteria to others. ‘Active TB’ is infectious and can be passed to other people. Active TB causes symptoms, but these differ from one person to the next. You can find an overview of TB on the NHS website.

Who does Tuberculosis affect?

TB can affect people of all ages. Some people are more at risk of catching TB than others. People living in locations where TB is more common are most at risk. Although the UK does not have very high numbers of TB cases, it is still possible to catch TB, especially in urban areas where there are larger numbers of people in one place (cities).

Those who are living with large groups of other people, or in contact with others in a high-risk category, are more at risk of contracting TB. Those with immune systems which do not work as well as they should are at greater risk, as their body is less able to fight the infection. This includes people with conditions which weaken their immune system such as Diabetes, and HIV. Very young and very old people also have a higher risk as their immune systems tend to be weaker. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol and drug misuse also increase risk.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are different from person to person, but the main symptoms are listed below. If you think you may have TB, or have been exposed to someone who has, speak to your GP or practice nurse as soon as possible. 

  • Cough lasting more than three weeks
  • Blood visible in phlegm when you cough
  • Fever and sweating, especially at night
  • Feeling generally unwell
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

What if I have some of these symptoms?

If you have any of these symptoms, speak to your GP or practice nurse immediately as they may wish to complete some tests, or refer you to a specialist team. If you don’t have a GP, you can search for local GP services on the Service Finder web page.  You may be asked to have a scan of the affected part of your body. Sometimes a sample of fluid of tissue may be collected, or liquid injected into your arm to check for a reaction. Click here to find out more.

How is Tuberculosis caused?

People of any age can become infected by, or ‘catch’, TB, although it is still quite rare in the UK. However, it is increasing. It is spread in a similar way to cold and flu viruses. It can spread from one person to another by liquid droplets in the air produced when an infected person breathes, speaks, coughs, sneezes, sings or laughs. If an uninfected person is standing too close, they may breathe in the infected droplets and become infected themselves.

How is Tuberculosis treated?

Latent TB, where bacteria is present in the body, but does not cause illness or symptoms, may benefit from treatment. This helps the body to rid itself of bacteria. If left untreated, bacteria can remain in the body permanently and bacteria could become active in the future. Latent TB is treated with antibiotic medication, usually for several months. Most people under the age of 65, or with a weakened immune system, are prescribed treatment. Medication is not appropriate for everyone, but anyone on treatment will be monitored regularly.

Active TB, causing illness with noticeable symptoms, is also treated with antibiotic medication for a number of months. People will usually feel better after two weeks and will no longer be infectious. Medication is taken by mouth or injection. Sometimes, TB affects more than just the lungs, and can be found throughout the body such as in the digestive system or the lymph nodes. This is called Extrapulmonary TB. In these cases, anti-inflammatory medication may also be prescribed.

How does Tuberculosis affect daily life?

If you are being treated for active TB, you should stay away from other people, or ‘isolate’ until you are no longer infectious. Your specialist medical team will advise you when it is safe to restart your usual activities. If you were in contact with people when you might have been infectious, they may need to be tested, so get in touch with anyone you have been close to in recent weeks. Symptoms of TB are usually easily treated, so the impact on daily life should not last for long.

What can I do to help myself?

Prevention is the first line of defence, by trying to avoid exposure to TB. If you think you may have come into contact with someone with the infection, speak to your GP or practice nurse immediately. Babies, children and people under the age of 35 who are considered to be at risk of catching TB will be offered a vaccination. For most people, the most important step is to follow a healthy lifestyle, with good diet and nutrition, plenty of exercise and good sleep, to help keep yourself well and your immune system strong. You can find out more about a healthy lifestyle on our Health and Wellbeing web pages.