TB is in the air

March 20, 2018

Tuberculosis is a deadly, infectious disease that has affected people for centuries. The earliest archaeological discoveries of tuberculosis are from bones of Egyptian mummies dating from 2400 B.C. These bone fragments show evidence of decay caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. After the disease’s initial discovery, it was frequently found throughout history.  For example, tuberculosis has been mentioned in the Bible, although it is referred to as consumption. Tuberculosis has been referred to as consumption and phthisis by the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, and Europeans throughout history. Tuberculosis has also become more common due to the rise of civilizations. This is because tuberculosis is an airborne disease; therefore, the close quarters of cities and towns made it easier for tuberculosis to spread. Once the disease became more well known, they figured out that common symptoms include fever, excessive weight loss, night sweats, breathlessness, pain in the side and the chest, and coughing up blood. Although antibiotics have reduced the outbreak of tuberculosis in today’s world, the knowledge of its causes, symptoms, and treatments remain important because there is always the possibility of contracting the deadly disease.


An essential thing to know about tuberculosis is its cause so that a person can attempt to prevent himself or herself from contracting the disease. The most common cause of tuberculosis is to inhale the disease-causing bacteria. The bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the specific genus and species that can cause tuberculosis and is often referred to as tuberculosis bacilli (Brennessel 2289). Once the bacteria enters the body, there are two stages of tuberculosis: latent tuberculosis and active tuberculosis. Latent tuberculosis is a type of infection that can remain dormant for many years. Without active symptoms, the disease cannot spread to others. Often people do not feel sick or even know they have contracted the bacteria, yet it may become active at any moment. A person can only experience symptoms and spread the disease if he or she has active tuberculosis (Hadjiliadis 1). Mycobacterium tuberculosis cannot move on its own; therefore, the bacteria spreads by air droplets (“Tuberculosis” Discovery 1). Tuberculosis cannot be spread by physical contact, sharing food or drink, touching bed linen or toilet seats, sharing toothbrushes, or kissing (“How TB Spreads” 1). The only way the bacteria can enter the air is if an infected person with active tuberculosis coughs, sneezes, sings, or talks. These activities will launch airborne droplets that contain the bacteria into the air (“Tuberculosis” Discovery 1).  Once the droplets are in the air, people can breathe them in, and “when a person breathes in TB bacteria, the bacteria can settle in the lungs and begin to grow. From there, they can move through the blood to other parts of the body, such as the kidney, spine, and brain” (“How TB Spreads” 1). These body parts can be greatly affected and damaged, but the disease does not always affect these parts of the body in every infected person. Some people are more at risk than others of contracting the disease. The people most at risk are inmates of correctional institutions, alcoholics, intravenous drug users, the homeless, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, diabetics, people with silicosis, and people with AIDS (Brennessel 2289). These people are at higher risk because “poverty, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor health, and poor nutrition provide ideal conditions for the spread of tuberculosis” (Brennessel 2289). These conditions apply to animals, who are also at risk of becoming infected (“Tuberculosis” Encyclopedia 2). By knowing the causes and conditions that may cause a person to contract tuberculosis, people can take precautions to protect themselves from this deadly disease.


Knowing the symptoms of active tuberculosis can alert people to the possibility of having the disease. People with active tuberculosis may suffer from low-grade fever, fatigue, chest pains, appetite loss, weight loss, chills, and night sweats; however, the severity varies. For example, one person may have a slight cough, whereas another person may be coughing up blood (Brennessel 2289). Once the Mycobacterium tuberculosis is inside of the lungs, the body begins to take action fighting it:


The immune system sends out white blood cells which builds walls of fibers around the bacteria to keep them contained; these walls form small, hard lumps known as tubercles. Once the body has formed tubercles to encapsulate the bacteria, they are contained . . . Later in the person's life, the walls containing the bacteria can be broken down, which causes the lungs to become infected again. (“Tuberculosis” Discovery 1)


After the immune system fails to contain the bacteria, new bacteria grows leaving the lung tissue dying and soft. As a result, the infected person coughs blood and the liquid from the soft and dying lung tissues. This causes a cavity to form in the lungs, which can make it difficult to breathe and not allow enough oxygen to circulate the body. Not only can cavities form in the lungs, but once the bacteria gets into the bloodstream, it can infect other parts of the body, such as the spine, kidney, bones, and brain. The coughing up of blood and the infection of other parts of the body only occurs in extreme cases. This can be prevented by taking medication, but if not treated correctly, the disease can be fatal (“Tuberculosis” Discovery 1). These tell-tale symptoms of tuberculosis can alert people to the possibility of having the disease.


Treatment is the most important thing to know about tuberculosis because people must know how to take care of themselves if they have such a dire disease. Leon Calmette and Camille Guérin were the first scientists to ever find a reliable antibiotic called, Calmette-Guérin (“Tuberculosis” Encyclopedia 1). It still used today, but there are more reliable antibiotics that have now been discovered. Some common ones are streptomycin, pyrazinamide, ethambutol, isoniazid, and rifampicin (“Tuberculosis” Discovery 2). Today it is more likely for a person to be treated with isoniazid and / or rifampin because over the years some bacterias have developed a resistance to streptomycin (“Tuberculosis” Discovery 2). Some side effects that may result from taking antibiotics are achy joints, bruising, easy bleeding, fever, loss of appetite, tingling or aches, upset stomach, nausea, stomach cramps, and jaundice (Hadjiliadis 2).  It is hard to diagnose tuberculosis because the symptoms are very common, and this is precisely why it is important to be able to diagnose it. Some typical tests are skin tests, sputum analysis, and chest x-rays. Once the person has been diagnosed, he or she should start antibiotics (“Tuberculosis” Discovery 1). The person must take the antibiotics for six to nine months and once daily to completely rid the body of the bacteria (Hadjiliadis 2). After a month, the infected person may begin to feel better, but the bacteria will not be completely gone; therefore, he or she must continue to take the antibiotics for as long as instructed. If not he or she may start to experience symptoms again, and possibly create a drug-resistant bacteria. The reason a person must take the medication for so long is because “tuberculosis germs die very slowly” (Hadjiliadis 1). The knowledge that treatment is a possibility is a comfort to those who have contracted the disease; it is important to know that there is a possibility for recovery.


Knowledge is power; therefore, knowing the causes, symptoms, and treatments if tuberculosis may save a life. Tuberculosis is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is spread through air droplets containing the bacteria. These air droplets come from a person who has active tuberculosis, which is the stage of tuberculosis that experiences symptoms and can spread the disease. Latent tuberculosis is the stage that a person does not experience symptoms and cannot spread the bacteria to others. The most common symptoms are coughing, low-grade fever, fatigue, chest pains, appetite loss, weight loss, chills, and night sweats. A more severe symptom that only occurs in extreme cases is coughing up blood and lung tissue. This only happens when the immune system fails to encapsulate the tuberculosis bacteria, and the bacteria continues to grow. The most common way to treat a person diagnosed with tuberculosis is a skin test. Other tests include x-rays and a sputum analysis, which may be more precise. Once diagnosed, there are multiple antibiotics that may be taken for six to nine weeks to completely rid the body of the bacteria. If the antibiotics are taken incorrectly, then the person’s body will not be completely free of the bacteria. Tuberculosis is still a widespread disease that affects millions of people, and by spreading the knowledge of the causes, symptoms, and treatments, a life may be saved.






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