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Pulmonary tuberculosis

TB; Tuberculosis - pulmonary; Mycobacterium - pulmonary 

Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious bacterial infection that involves the lungs. It may spread to other organs.

Causes

Pulmonary TB is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M tuberculosis). TB is contagious. This means the bacteria is easily spread from an infected person to someone else. You can get TB by breathing in air droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person. The resulting lung infection is called primary TB.

Most people recover from primary TB infection without further evidence of the disease. The infection may stay inactive (dormant) for years. In some people, it becomes active again (reactivates).

Most people who develop symptoms of a TB infection first became infected in the past. In some cases, the disease becomes active within weeks after the primary infection.

The following people are at higher risk of active TB or reactivation of TB:

  • Older adults
  • Infants
  • People with weakened immune systems, for example due to HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, diabetes, or medicines that weaken the immune system

Your risk of catching TB increases if you:

  • Are around people who have TB
  • Live in crowded or unclean living conditions
  • Have poor nutrition

The following factors can increase the rate of TB infection in a population:

  • Increase in HIV infections
  • Increase in number of homeless people (poor environment and nutrition)
  • Presence of drug-resistant strains of TB

Symptoms

The primary stage of TB does not cause symptoms. When symptoms of pulmonary TB occur, they can include:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Chest pain
  • Cough (usually with mucus)
  • Coughing up blood
  • Excessive sweating, particularly at night
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Wheezing

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This may show:

  • Clubbing of the fingers or toes (in people with advanced disease)
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes in the neck or other areas
  • Fluid around a lung (pleural effusion)
  • Unusual breath sounds (crackles)

Tests that may be ordered include:

  • Bronchoscopy (test that uses a scope to view the airways)
  • Chest CT scan
  • Chest x-ray
  • Interferon-gamma release blood test, such as the QFT-Gold test to test for TB infection (active or infection in the past)
  • Sputum examination and cultures
  • Thoracentesis (procedure to remove fluid from the space between the lining of the outside of the lungs and the wall of the chest)
  • Tuberculin skin test (also called a PPD test)
  • Biopsy of the affected tissue (done rarely)

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to cure the infection with medicines that fight the TB bacteria. Active pulmonary TB is treated with a combination of many medicines (usually 4 medicines). The person takes the medicines until lab tests show which medicines work best.

You may need to take many different pills at different times of the day for 6 months or longer. It is very important that you take the pills the way your provider instructed.

When people do not take their TB medicines like they are supposed to, the infection can become much more difficult to treat. The TB bacteria can become resistant to treatment. This means the medicines no longer work.

If a person is not taking all the medicines as directed, a provider may need to watch the person take the prescribed medicines. This approach is called directly observed therapy. In this case, medicines may be given 2 or 3 times a week.

You may need to stay at home or be admitted to a hospital for 2 to 4 weeks to avoid spreading the disease to others until you are no longer contagious.

Your provider is required by law to report your TB illness to the local health department. Your health care team will ensure that you receive the best care.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you feel more in control.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Symptoms often improve in 2 to 3 weeks after starting treatment. A chest x-ray will not show this improvement until weeks or months later. Outlook is excellent if pulmonary TB is diagnosed early and effective treatment is started quickly.

Possible Complications

Pulmonary TB can cause permanent lung damage if not treated early. It can also spread to other parts of the body.

Medicines used to treat TB may cause side effects, including:

  • Changes in vision
  • Orange- or brown-colored tears and urine
  • Rash
  • Liver inflammation

A vision test may be done before start of treatment so your provider can monitor any changes in the health of your eyes.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

  • You think or know you have been exposed to TB
  • You develop symptoms of TB
  • Your symptoms continue despite treatment
  • New symptoms develop

Prevention

TB is preventable, even in those who have been exposed to an infected person. Skin testing for TB is used in high risk populations or in people who may have been exposed to TB, such as health care workers.

People who have been exposed to TB should have a skin test as soon as possible and have a follow-up test at a later date, if the first test is negative.

A positive skin test means you have come into contact with the TB bacteria. It does not mean that you have active TB or are contagious. Talk to your provider about how to prevent getting TB.

Prompt treatment is very important in preventing the spread of TB from those who have active TB to those who have never been infected with TB.

Some countries with a high incidence of TB give people a vaccine called BCG to prevent TB. But, the effectiveness of this vaccine is limited and it is not usually used in the United States.

People who have had BCG may still be skin tested for TB. Discuss the test results (if positive) with your provider.

References

Fitzgerald DW, Sterling TR, Haas DW. Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In: Bennett JE, Dolan R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, Updated Edition. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 251.

Hopewell PC, Kato-Maeda M, Ernst JD. Tuberculosis. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 35.

Nahid P, Dorman SE, Alipanah N, et al. Official American Thoracic Society/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Infectious Diseases Society of America clinical practice guidelines: treatment of drug-susceptible tuberculosis. Clin Infect Dis. 2016;63(7):e147-e195. PMID: 27516382 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27516382.

    • Tuberculosis in the kidney

      Tuberculosis in the kidney - illustration

      Kidneys can be damaged by tuberculosis. Tuberculosis generally affects the lungs, but may cause infection in many other organs in the body. (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

      Tuberculosis in the kidney

      illustration

    • Tuberculosis in the lung

      Tuberculosis in the lung - illustration

      Tuberculosis is caused by a group of organisms, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, M bovis, M africanum and a few other rarer subtypes. Tuberculosis usually appears as a lung (pulmonary) infection. However, it may infect other organs in the body. Recently, antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis have appeared. With increasing numbers of immunocompromised individuals with AIDS, and homeless people without medical care, tuberculosis is seen more frequently today. (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

      Tuberculosis in the lung

      illustration

    • Tuberculosis, advanced - chest X-rays

      Tuberculosis, advanced - chest X-rays - illustration

      Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that causes inflammation, the formation of tubercles and other growths within tissue, and can cause tissue death. These chest x-rays show advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. There are multiple light areas (opacities) of varying size that run together (coalesce). Arrows indicate the location of cavities within these light areas. The x-ray on the left clearly shows that the opacities are located in the upper area of the lungs toward the back. The appearance is typical for chronic pulmonary tuberculosis but may also occur with chronic pulmonary histiocytosis and chronic pulmonary coccidioidomycosis. Pulmonary tuberculosis is making a comeback with new resistant strains that are difficult to treat. Pulmonary tuberculosis is the most common form of the disease, but other organs can be infected.

      Tuberculosis, advanced - chest X-rays

      illustration

    • Pulmonary nodule - front view chest x-ray

      Pulmonary nodule - front view chest x-ray - illustration

      This x-ray shows a single lesion (pulmonary nodule) in the upper right lung (seen as a light area on the left side of the picture). The nodule has distinct borders (well-defined) and is uniform in density. Tuberculosis (TB) and other diseases can cause this type of lesion.

      Pulmonary nodule - front view chest x-ray

      illustration

    • Pulmonary nodule, solitary - CT scan

      Pulmonary nodule, solitary - CT scan - illustration

      This CT scan shows a single lesion (pulmonary nodule) in the right lung. This nodule is seen as the light circle in the upper portion of the dark area on the left side of the picture. A normal lung would look completely black in a CT scan.

      Pulmonary nodule, solitary - CT scan

      illustration

    • Miliary tuberculosis

      Miliary tuberculosis - illustration

      Miliary tuberculosis is characterized by a chronic, contagious bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis that has spread to other organs of the body by the blood or lymph system.

      Miliary tuberculosis

      illustration

    • Tuberculosis of the lungs

      Tuberculosis of the lungs - illustration

      Tuberculosis is a contagious bacterial disease that primarily involves the lungs. Tuberculosis may develop after inhaling infected droplets sprayed into the air from a cough or sneeze of someone infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

      Tuberculosis of the lungs

      illustration

    • Erythema nodosum associated with sarcoidosis

      Erythema nodosum associated with sarcoidosis - illustration

      This picture shows reddish-purple, hard (indurated), painful nodules (erythema nodosum) that occur most commonly on the shins. These lesions may be anywhere on the body and may be associated with tuberculosis (TB), sarcoidosis, coccidioidomycosis, systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE), fungal infections, or in response to medications.

      Erythema nodosum associated with sarcoidosis

      illustration

    • Respiratory system

      Respiratory system - illustration

      Air is breathed in through the nasal passageways, travels through the trachea and bronchi to the lungs.

      Respiratory system

      illustration

    • Tuberculin skin test

      Tuberculin skin test - illustration

      The tuberculin skin test is performed to evaluate whether a person has been exposed to tuberculosis. If there has been a prior exposure, antibodies are formed and remain in the body. During the skin test, the tuberculosis antigen is injected under the skin and if antibodies are present, the body will have an immune response. There will be an area of inflammation at the site of the injection.

      Tuberculin skin test

      illustration

      • Tuberculosis in the kidney

        Tuberculosis in the kidney - illustration

        Kidneys can be damaged by tuberculosis. Tuberculosis generally affects the lungs, but may cause infection in many other organs in the body. (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

        Tuberculosis in the kidney

        illustration

      • Tuberculosis in the lung

        Tuberculosis in the lung - illustration

        Tuberculosis is caused by a group of organisms, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, M bovis, M africanum and a few other rarer subtypes. Tuberculosis usually appears as a lung (pulmonary) infection. However, it may infect other organs in the body. Recently, antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis have appeared. With increasing numbers of immunocompromised individuals with AIDS, and homeless people without medical care, tuberculosis is seen more frequently today. (Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

        Tuberculosis in the lung

        illustration

      • Tuberculosis, advanced - chest X-rays

        Tuberculosis, advanced - chest X-rays - illustration

        Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that causes inflammation, the formation of tubercles and other growths within tissue, and can cause tissue death. These chest x-rays show advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. There are multiple light areas (opacities) of varying size that run together (coalesce). Arrows indicate the location of cavities within these light areas. The x-ray on the left clearly shows that the opacities are located in the upper area of the lungs toward the back. The appearance is typical for chronic pulmonary tuberculosis but may also occur with chronic pulmonary histiocytosis and chronic pulmonary coccidioidomycosis. Pulmonary tuberculosis is making a comeback with new resistant strains that are difficult to treat. Pulmonary tuberculosis is the most common form of the disease, but other organs can be infected.

        Tuberculosis, advanced - chest X-rays

        illustration

      • Pulmonary nodule - front view chest x-ray

        Pulmonary nodule - front view chest x-ray - illustration

        This x-ray shows a single lesion (pulmonary nodule) in the upper right lung (seen as a light area on the left side of the picture). The nodule has distinct borders (well-defined) and is uniform in density. Tuberculosis (TB) and other diseases can cause this type of lesion.

        Pulmonary nodule - front view chest x-ray

        illustration

      • Pulmonary nodule, solitary - CT scan

        Pulmonary nodule, solitary - CT scan - illustration

        This CT scan shows a single lesion (pulmonary nodule) in the right lung. This nodule is seen as the light circle in the upper portion of the dark area on the left side of the picture. A normal lung would look completely black in a CT scan.

        Pulmonary nodule, solitary - CT scan

        illustration

      • Miliary tuberculosis

        Miliary tuberculosis - illustration

        Miliary tuberculosis is characterized by a chronic, contagious bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis that has spread to other organs of the body by the blood or lymph system.

        Miliary tuberculosis

        illustration

      • Tuberculosis of the lungs

        Tuberculosis of the lungs - illustration

        Tuberculosis is a contagious bacterial disease that primarily involves the lungs. Tuberculosis may develop after inhaling infected droplets sprayed into the air from a cough or sneeze of someone infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

        Tuberculosis of the lungs

        illustration

      • Erythema nodosum associated with sarcoidosis

        Erythema nodosum associated with sarcoidosis - illustration

        This picture shows reddish-purple, hard (indurated), painful nodules (erythema nodosum) that occur most commonly on the shins. These lesions may be anywhere on the body and may be associated with tuberculosis (TB), sarcoidosis, coccidioidomycosis, systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE), fungal infections, or in response to medications.

        Erythema nodosum associated with sarcoidosis

        illustration

      • Respiratory system

        Respiratory system - illustration

        Air is breathed in through the nasal passageways, travels through the trachea and bronchi to the lungs.

        Respiratory system

        illustration

      • Tuberculin skin test

        Tuberculin skin test - illustration

        The tuberculin skin test is performed to evaluate whether a person has been exposed to tuberculosis. If there has been a prior exposure, antibodies are formed and remain in the body. During the skin test, the tuberculosis antigen is injected under the skin and if antibodies are present, the body will have an immune response. There will be an area of inflammation at the site of the injection.

        Tuberculin skin test

        illustration

      Review Date: 12/1/2018

      Reviewed By: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

      The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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