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Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs. It is caused by the bacteria Mycobacteria tuberculosis and is spread through airborne droplets from an infected person. Before the discovery of certain antibiotic drugs in the 1940s, TB was the leading cause of death in the United States. Even though TB is not as common as it once was in the U.S., there has been a resurgence in recent years due to HIV, AIDS, and the spread of drug-resistant forms of TB. It is still a major health problem throughout the world, especially in poor countries. Up to one third of the world's population may be infected with TB, though the infection may not be active.
Signs and Symptoms
If you have been exposed to TB, you may be infected but have no symptoms and not be contagious. Between 20 - 30% of people exposed to a person with active TB become infected. For that reason, doctors usually distinguish between infection (or a positive TB test) and an active infection. After you are infected, your immune system will attack the bacteria. Your body may kill all the bacteria, the bacteria may remain in your body but not cause an active infection, or you may develop the disease. TB can affect other areas of your body outside of the lungs, but lung infection is most common. Typically, TB bacteria that grow in the lungs may cause:
What Causes It?
Mycobacterium tuberculosis causes most cases of TB. The disease is spread from one person to another through airborne bacteria. However, it isn't easy to catch TB. You need consistent exposure to the contagious person for a long time. For that reason, you're more likely to catch TB from a relative than a stranger. Typically, a person with TB in the lungs or the throat coughs or sneezes. Others nearby then breathe in the bacteria. When a person breathes in TB bacteria, the bacteria can settle into the lungs and begin to grow.
Who's Most At Risk?
Because TB is only spread through inhalation of infected respiratory particles in the air (see What Causes It? section), you are not likely to contract the infection through other means such as handshakes or sharing of dishes and utensils. People with TB are most likely to spread it to people with whom they spend the most time -- family members, friends, classmates, and coworkers. Risk factors for developing TB include:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If your doctor suspects a TB infection, you will need a skin test. A positive reaction to the test means you are likely infected with TB, although false positive and false negative results are possible. To confirm the diagnosis and determine if the infection is active, you may need to have samples taken of your sputum (mucus and other material coughed up from the lungs) or stomach fluid to check for TB bacteria, as well as a chest x-ray.
TB is difficult to treat (see "Drug Therapies") so prevention is important. Prevention of TB begins with rapid diagnosis and treatment to avoid spread to noninfected persons. In countries where TB is common, a vaccine called BCG may be administered. However, the vaccine causes a false positive on the skin test and is not very effective in adults, so it's rarely given in the U.S.
If you are at risk, you should be tested for TB every 6 months. If you test positive but have no signs of active infection, you may be given the medication isoniazid to prevent an active infection.
The most important way to keep TB from spreading is for infected people to take their medications exactly as prescribed. If you do not take all of your medications, you run the risk of developing multidrug resistant TB, which you can then spread to others. Drug resistant TB is a major health problem in the U.S. and around the world. If you have TB, keeping all of your clinic appointments is essential so that your doctor can check for side effects from the drugs and evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment. If you are sick enough with TB to go to a hospital, you may be put in a special room with air vents that keep the TB bacteria from spreading. You will most likely be prevented from leaving your room while you are contagious (about 2 weeks after treatment begins). People who come into the room will wear special face masks to protect themselves from TB bacteria and to prevent the spread of TB bacteria to others.
If your doctor suspects TB, treatment may begin before all lab tests return. This may include more than one anti-TB drug. Emergency treatment may be necessary if, for example, you are coughing up blood.
TB bacteria die very slowly. It takes 6 months to a year for the medicine to destroy all of the TB bacteria -- longer for multidrug resistant TB. If you have TB, you will need to take several different drugs. You will be tested first for drug resistance to determine the most effective combination of drugs to prevent the bacteria from becoming resistant to the drugs. The most common drugs used to fight TB are:
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
TB should never be treated with alternative therapies alone. To cure the disease, and to avoid spreading it to other people, you must be treated with prescription medications. Some CAM treatments may be useful as supportive therapies.
Even if complementary therapies are used, conventional prescription drugs must be taken exactly as directed. Complementary therapies do not allow patients to get by with less medicine or to skip doses. Skipping doses is a major cause of the development of drug resistant strains and greater spread of the disease.
Following these nutritional tips may help reduce risks and symptoms:
You may address nutritional deficiencies with the following supplements:
Animal studies suggest that TB may be more severe in persons with diets rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids. These studies are not comprehensive, and it's not clear whether there is a similar effect in humans. Until researchers know more, however, it may be wise to avoid omega-3 supplements (such as fish oil) if you have or are at risk for TB.
Herbs are generally available as standardized, dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures/liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 - 2 heaping teaspoonfuls/cup water steeped for 10 - 15 minutes (roots need longer). Although herbs should never be used alone to treat TB, some herbs may be helpful along with conventional medical treatment.
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for tuberculosis based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
Acupuncture can help strengthen your immune system response, as well as support your lung function.
A full course of medication can cure TB in people who do not have a multidrug resistant strain. It can be fatal in the elderly, in those who have TB that has spread to locations other than the lungs including miliary TB (which spreads through the bloodstream affecting many organ systems), in those with multidrug resistant strains of TB, or in those with HIV.
Possible complications of TB include:
U.S. public health policy requires health care providers to report cases of TB and to treat or quarantine all patients. Most patients may remain at home, but all should be kept from any new contacts for at least 2 weeks after treatment begins. The elderly and those who are acutely ill or have multidrug resistant TB should be hospitalized for the first few weeks of treatment.
It is essential to take all TB medication exactly as prescribed in order to cure TB and prevent drug resistance. Sputum samples are collected and tested monthly. If tests are still positive after 3 months of treatment, the infection is considered multidrug resistant and a change in medications is in order.
Since effective treatment of TB depends on taking multiple antibiotic drugs for an extended period of time, it is essential that you consult with your health care provider before using complementary or alternative therapies, including taking herbs and vitamin supplements.
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Review Date: 12/28/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare.
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