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.
How tuberculosis is 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.
The difference between active and 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 who are infected with the TB bacteria that multiplies and grows where the immune system is not able to fight off the bacteria are said to have active TB. These people will have symptoms and are infectious.
High-risk groups of tuberculosis
You are most at risk if you:
- Have been recently infected with TB bacteria, including people who 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 your immune system, like HIV or AIDS, diabetes and some cancers.
People with TB can:
- feel tired and unwell
- have a bad cough that last at least three weeks
- lose weight
- have a fever and sweat in bed at night
- cough up blood in the sputum
- chest pains
- swollen lymph glands.
Your doctor may order:
- TB skin and blood tests
- sputum tests
- chest X-rays.
The results of the tests can take a long time - 6 weeks or more - to come back.
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 six 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.
Multilingual resources on tuberculosis
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.
Last reviewed: April 2017