Tuberculosis is a serious disease caused by a bacterium known as Koch's bacillus in honour of the man who first identified it. In several countries around the world, particularly throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East, tuberculosis is a deadly disease that kills millions of people each year. Canada however, has one of the lowest rates of tuberculosis on the planet. That being said, it is in our best interest to remain alert.
One does not necessarily become ill when exposed to the tuberculosis-causing bacteria. Oftentimes, the body will fight off the bacteria and eliminate it on its own. If the immune system does not succeed in eradicating the bacteria, one becomes a carrier. At this point, carriers, although infected, are asymptomatic meaning that they do not present any symptoms. The infection will remain dormant in approximately 90% of those infected and they will remain unaware of the fact that they are carriers unless tested for the bacteria. When the immune system becomes weakened, the bacteria begin to multiply and produce tuberculosis, activating all the symptoms and affecting one or several organs. Being malnourished, undergoing cancer treatments or being HIV positive (the virus that causes AIDS) are but a few examples of factors that can weaken the immune system's defenses. The bacteria can attack the lungs (this is the most common form of tuberculosis) as well as the bones, kidneys, central nervous system, etc.
Tuberculosis is contagious. Coughing and sneezing is enough for an infected person to release the bacteria into the surrounding air and transmit the disease. The infected person must have active TB symptoms and the disease must also be active in the lungs. If all these factors are present, persons who are sick can transmit the tuberculosis bacteria to those with whom they have close or frequent contact, over an extended period of time, such as loved ones.
TB symptoms will vary depending on the organs affected by the disease. The most common symptoms however, include:
- agitation and night sweats
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
Pulmonary tuberculosis, which affects the lungs, may also be accompanied by symptoms such as:
- increased respiration rate
- abnormal sputum colour or sputum laced with blood
And lastly, other symptoms can also manifest themselves depending on the location of the tuberculosis infection.
Tuberculosis is a reportable disease which means that once it is diagnosed by a physician, he or she is duty bound to notify the government. The objective of this measure is to make prevention and nation-wide measures easier in the event of an epidemic. Furthermore, if a person is diagnosed with tuberculosis, his or her loved ones must be tested to make sure that all those infected receive the proper treatment.
Several tests can be used to diagnose tuberculosis. The disease can be identified with a simple skin test even when individuals do not present any symptoms. The physician can also request an x-ray of the lungs and/or a sample of sputum for lab analysis to determine whether the disease is in an active phase.
The treatment for tuberculosis generally involves taking a combination of antibiotics for several months. If the person in question is diagnosed in a latent phase (when there are no symptoms), treatment may be shorter. It is extremely important to follow both the physician's and the pharmacist's orders to the letter and to see the treatment through to the end even though symptoms have diminished or disappeared. The reason for this is that there may still be bacteria present and they could very well build resistance to the medications, making them all the more difficult to eliminate afterwards. The disease is no longer contagious after 2 to 3 weeks of treatment.