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What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease that damages people’s lungs or other parts of the body and can cause serious illness and death. TB is caused by the bacterium (germ) Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

The difference between active and inactive (latent) TB disease

People infected with TB bacteria may not get sick because their bodies are able to fight off the infection. This is called latent or inactive TB, and is not infectious.

People have active TB if they are infected with the TB bacteria, which multiplies and grows and their immune system is not able to fight off the bacteria. These people will have symptoms and are infectious.

What are the symptoms of tuberculosis?

People with TB can:

  • feel tired and unwell
  • have a bad cough that lasts at least 3 weeks
  • lose weight
  • have a fever and sweat in bed at night
  • cough up blood in the sputum (phlegm)
  • have chest pains
  • have swollen lymph glands

How is tuberculosis spread?

TB is spread through the air when a person with active TB disease spreads the bacteria by coughing, sneezing, shouting, speaking or singing and other people nearby breathe in the bacteria.

High-risk groups of tuberculosis

People are most at risk if they:

  • have been recently infected with TB bacteria, including people who live with or work close to someone with active TB, who live in countries where there is a lot of TB, and young children
  • have a medical condition that weakens their immune system, like HIV or AIDS, diabetes and some cancers

How is tuberculosis diagnosed?

If TB is suspected, your doctor may order TB skin and blood tests, sputum tests and chest x-rays.

The results of the tests can take a long time — 6 weeks or more — to come back.

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How is tuberculosis treated?

For latent TB, your doctor can prescribe tablets to reduce the risk of you developing active TB.

For active TB, you will be prescribed a combination of special antibiotics, which you must take for at least 6 months.

You may need initial treatment in hospital. If you complete the full treatment, you can be cured of TB disease.

Because TB is a notifiable disease, doctors must report all cases to the health authorities.

Precautions for tuberculosis patients

  • Finish the full course of all TB medicines or you could become seriously ill or die.
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
  • Ask family and close contacts to visit their doctor or clinic for TB tests.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Can tuberculosis be prevented?

The vaccine for tuberculosis ­is called the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine. The BCG vaccine does not prevent a person from becoming infected with TB if exposed to it, but it helps prevent severe or life-threatening TB disease, especially in young children.

Most Australian children do not need the BCG vaccine as TB rates in Australia are very low. The vaccine is not part of the childhood immunisation program.

The vaccine registered for use in Australia is not always readily available in Australia. Ask your GP about how to get the BCG vaccine. Alternative unregistered vaccines may be available through special prescribing arrangements.

The vaccine may be recommended for:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies living in some parts of Australia
  • children, especially those aged under 5, who are travelling to parts of the world where there is TB
  • babies whose parents or carers have TB
  • young children who are exposed to leprosy at home (BCG can also prevent leprosy) , which is rare in Australia

Everybody is recommended to have a skin test before they are vaccinated.

Tuberculosis vaccine

Vaccination is your best protection against the severe effects of tuberculosis. This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.

What age is it recommended? If indicated, BCG can be given at any age
When to get vaccinated? BCG should be given after a risk assessment is conducted, and only if the vaccine is available
How many doses are required? 1
How is it administered? Injection
Is it free?

Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.

Common side effects The vaccine is safe and side effects are rare. After the vaccination, a small, red sore forms and then ulcerates and heals. There can be a scar. Lymph glands can get swollen.

Resources in other languages

The NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service provides a number of services including medical information and advice to people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Information on tuberculosis is available in a number of languages, such as:

Other languages are also available.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2020

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