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Published on Mar 30, 2017
Tuberculosis, commonly referred to as TB, is caused by a bacterium known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately one third of the world’s population is infected by the bacteria, but only a small percentage of infected people become sick. In the United States, over 9,500 TB cases were reported in 2015 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For most people who breathe in the bacteria and become infected, the body is able to fight it and stop it from growing. However, the WHO reports that TB is still one of the top ten causes of death worldwide.
When Mycobacterium tuberculosis lives in the body without making a person sick it is called latent TB infection. People with latent TB infection have no symptoms and don’t feel sick. Many people who have latent TB infection never develop the disease. Other people may get sick years later when their immune system becomes weak for another reason.
For those who do develop TB disease, their immune system can't stop the bacteria from multiplying in their body. This is why TB can be so devastating to people with a weakened immune system, including people with HIV.
The bacteria usually attack the lungs, but they can attack any part of the body, such as the kidney, spine and brain. The CDC states that symptoms of TB disease may include a bad cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer, pain in the chest, coughing up blood or sputum, weakness or fatigue, weight loss, no appetite, chills, fever, and sweating at night.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis can be spread from a person with TB disease of the lungs or throat through the air from one person to another when they cough, sneeze, speak or sing. This occurs when people nearby breathe in the bacteria and then become infected. This is why the transmission of tuberculosis can be a significant risk in healthcare environments and other places where many people share the same space for extended periods of time.
These are just a few things to know about TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and ways the disease can be spread. To learn more about environmental pathogens or other environmental, indoor air quality, occupational, health or safety issues, please visit the websites shown below.