Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease that typically affects the lungs but may infect any other organ of the body. TB can only be passed from person to person when someone with active TB of the lungs coughs, sings, laughs or sneezes. People who are young or elderly or who have weakened immune systems are more prone to active infection. The number of people who get TB in Victoria is low and it can be effectively treated with medications.
Tuberculosis, commonly known as TB, is an infectious disease caused by infection with the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium. Typically TB affects the lungs but it can also infect any other organ of the body. It is spread from person to person through the air when someone with an active infection of the lungs or throat coughs, sings, laughs or sneezes.
Most people infected with TB do not have any symptoms although there is a 10 per cent lifetime risk that symptoms will develop later into an active infection. In people without symptoms, medications can help reduce the risk of the infection developing into active disease. People who are young or elderly or who have weakened immune systems are more prone to active infection.
TB was once the leading cause of death in many countries but effective treatment and prevention programs means it is now uncommon in the Australian-born population.
Causes of TB
TB is spread when a person with an active disease of the lungs or upper airways (nose and throat) coughs, sings, laughs or sneezes. People nearby may breathe in the exhaled bacteria and become infected. The bacteria can settle in the lungs and begin to grow. From there, the bacteria can move through the blood or lymphatic system to other parts of the body such as the kidney, spine and brain. Although TB infection in the lungs or throat can be spread to other people, TB in other parts of the body is usually not infectious.
An infected person who does not have active disease cannot transmit TB to another person. These people have latent (or 'sleeping') TB.
Sometimes a mother who has active TB disease that has not yet been treated can pass the bacteria to her baby before or during birth (congenital tuberculosis), although this is extremely rare. There have been very few reported cases of this in the world.
The number of people who get TB in Victoria is low – about 400 cases per year. Most cases are in people who were born overseas. The most common way to catch TB is if you have close contact over a long period of time with somebody who has untreated, active disease in the lungs.
People who are at higher risk of developing active TB infection include:
- migrants and refugees
- Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders (in northern Australia)
- people living with a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection or have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
- people with weakened immune systems
- people with alcoholism
- people who are older
- people living in institutions
- people living in overcrowded conditions
- people with diabetes
- health professionals.
Symptoms of active TB
Some of the symptoms of active TB infection include:
- persistent cough
- night sweats
- weight loss
- coughing up blood.
Diagnosis of TB
If your doctor thinks you have TB, diagnosis is simple.
Methods used to diagnose TB may include:
- medical history
- skin test (the tuberculin skin test using the Mantoux procedure)
- blood test
- a chest x-ray – to show whether TB has affected the lungs
- a sputum test – to see if TB bacteria are present in coughed-up sputum.
- living with HIV or AIDS
- living or working in close contact with someone who has recently been diagnosed with active TB
- having any TB symptoms.
Treatment for TB
If you have TB, your doctor may prescribe a course of tablets or suggest regular chest x-rays. Active TB infection can be treated with medication, usually at a major public hospital or by a specialist physician. It will take at least six months to cure TB, sometimes longer.
It is very important that you take the full course of treatment. If you don’t, the TB infection might return and will be harder to cure because the TB bacteria might become resistant to the medication.
Side effects of TB medications
The medications can cause side effects including:
- upset stomach
- pins and needles
- skin rash
- blurred vision
- dark urine (orange- to red-coloured urine is a normal side effect that is not harmful)
- yellow eyes.
Immunisation against TB
The vaccine against TB is called BCG. It is no longer recommended for the general population of Victoria, nor is it recommended for healthcare workers. It is only recommended for people at high risk of infection. These people include:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies in high risk regions such as the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland
- babies born to parents who come from countries with a high rate of TB such as Asia, southern and eastern European countries, Pacific Island nations and north and sub-Saharan Africa
- babies born to parents with leprosy (TB and leprosy are caused by similar bacteria)
- children under five who go to live in high risk countries for long periods of time
- children under 16 who are regularly exposed to someone with active TB and who cannot be given preventative treatment.
Pregnancy and the BCG vaccine
Immunisation against TB with BCG vaccine should not be used for women who are pregnant but can be given to women who are breastfeeding.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit, Department of Health, Victorian Government Tel. 1300 651 160
- National Immunisation Information Line Tel. 1800 671 811
Things to remember
- TB is an uncommon infectious disease in Victoria.
- Only people with active TB of the lungs can pass on infection.
- TB can be treated with medication
- Immunisation against TB is not recommended for the general population of Victoria.
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Last reviewed: August 2013
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