One Disease You Definitely Don’t Want


It’s been called consumption, the white plague, pott disease, and phthisis. Once thought a romantic disease, notables such as John Keats, Percy Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Bronte, Edgar Allen Poe, and Frederic Chopin either died from it or suffered with it. Ancient treatments ranged from using special gold pieces around victims necks or inhaling smoke from burning cow dung.


Tuberculosis (TB) is a nasty disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis  spread from person to person through airborne droplets. According to the CDC, 10,528 TB cases were reported in the United States in 2011- which is the lowest number since reporting began in 1958. A little over five hundred people died from it in 2009. In the 18th/19th centuries, the numbers of deaths were staggering.

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Typical scenario of how it spreads: your infected neighbor coughs, sneezes, or spits while talking to you and you breathe his droplet in.  Poor unknowing bystanders (crowder elevator) have no idea they may have just been blasted with mycobacterium tuberculosis. Another good reason to take the stairs.


No, it’s not that common (in developed countries), but it is often fatal if not treated.TB infects the lungs, but it can also affect other body parts like your brain, kidneys, or the spine.  How do you know if you’re infected? The most common symptoms are weight loss, fever, night sweats, fatigue, and coughing up blood.

What is the Difference Between Latent TB Infection and TB Disease?

People with latent TB infection have TB germs in their bodies, but they are not sick because the germs are not active.  This person will have a positive TB (PPD test). They have no symptoms, and can’t spread the infection to others. But, there is a chance they can develop TB in the future. That’s why antibiotics are usually given for a positive TB screening – it’s insurance for the future.

People with TB disease are sick from TB germs that are actively multiplying and destroying organ tissue. If you have been exposed to a person with TB disease, you can get infected too. You need to get to your primary care provider or local health department for follow-up testing.

Once a person is infected with TB bacteria, the chance of developing TB disease increases with:

  • HIV infection
  • Presence of additional health problems such as diabetes or a compromised immune system.
  • Abuse of alcohol or illegal drugs

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As a health care provider, my institution requires me to be tested yearly, and I also screen all my patients at the addiction clinic annually with the PPD test. A positive test means the person has been infected with TB,  It does not tell whether he has TB disease. Next step would be a chest x-ray and probably the course of antibiotics for 6-12 months.  If you test positive once for TB, you will always test positive, so it should be noted and then the test should not be given again.

Modern medical advances have helped millions of people live longer, healthier lives. We owe these improvements to decades of investment in medical research. Ike Skeleton