Tuberculosis (TB)

What is TB?

TB is an illness caused by the germ Mycobacterium tuberculosis that usually infects the lungs, but in some cases can spread elsewhere in the body. In most cases, TB germs do not make a person sick because the body’s immune system is able to control the infection. TB germs remain in the person’s body but are inactive and not spreading. People with inactive TB are not sick and cannot spread TB to others.

If a person’s immune system cannot stop the TB germs from growing, they will develop active TB. Active TB can be infectious and can spread to other people if the germs are found in the lungs or airways. TB is spread through the air when a person with active TB coughs, sneezes, or talks and someone else breathes the germ into their lungs. To catch TB, a person must spend a lot of time with someone who is sick with active TB.

Symptoms of active TB can include:

  • cough
  • blood in sputum
  • weight loss
  • night sweats
  • fever

People who are experiencing these symptoms should see their family doctor. 

How can I get tested for TB?

A test can be done to see if you have the TB germ in your body. This test is called a TB skin test. When you have a TB skin test, a small amount of liquid called Tubersol® is injected under the skin on your forearm. Two to three days later, you must return to have your arm checked. If there is a reaction, it will be measured to see if it is considered positive.

A positive TB skin test may mean that you have been infected with the TB germ at some time in your life. Both inactive and active TB can cause a positive TB skin test reaction. A few other infections can also cause a positive skin test. A doctor will do further tests to make sure you do not have active TB. These tests may include a chest x-ray and/or sputum testing.

TB skin tests can be booked at all WDGPH locations. The cost of a TB skin test is $40 per test. Testing is free for those identified by Public Health. Please call 1-800-265-7293 ext. 7006 for an appointment.

What happens if I test positive?

A positive TB skin test may mean that you have been infected with the TB germ at some time in your life.

Your healthcare provider will do further tests to make sure you do not have active TB. These tests may include a chest X-ray, bloodwork and/or sputum testing. (Sputum is the “mixture of saliva and mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract.”)

What happens if I test negative?

In general, if a person has a negative TST no further follow-up is required. If you are being tested as part of a potential exposure to someone who has active TB, a second TST test may be recommended.

How accurate is the test?

The TB skin test has been the same for years. Tuberculin has been used for some time in many countries and is a standard test. 

How is TB treated?

Active TB: Treatment for active TB can take up to two years (average is 6 months). Up to four different kinds of medications must be taken daily.; You may need to be isolated and stay away from other people for a while so you do not spread TB to others. Medication must be taken in order to get better and to stop the spread of TB to others.

Inactive TB: Your doctor may suggest that you take one or more medications every day for 4 to 9 months to help prevent you from developing active TB in the future. Medication for inactive TB is very important for people who:

  • Have any medical condition that affects their immune system or are taking medication that can weaken the immune system (e.g., corticosteroids), or are underweight
  • Have been recently exposed to someone with active TB
  • Are immigrants, refugees, or travelers from areas with high TB rates
  • Work at, or are residents of, health care facilities, homeless shelters, or correctional facilities

Spread of TB

If I’ve been exposed, will I get my family sick?

If you are infected with TB and you have a positive TST, you are not infectious. You are only infectious if you go on to develop active TB. If you have no symptoms and you are well, you could be positive and you are safe.

Ninety percent of people exposed to TB do not develop the disease. For adults that do develop the disease, it could be 1-2 years before the infection progresses to active disease and there are signs and symptoms.

You can’t spread TB unless it is in your lungs and you have active disease.