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What is TB?

Early treatment means you feel better sooner. It also reduces the risk of any long-term damage to the body and helps stop the spread of TB.

The symptoms of TB can appear slowly and you may not have all of them. Always see a doctor if you are worried. And remember, TB is curable and treatment is free for everyone in the UK.

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious illness caused by the airborne bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. TB can cause serious health problems – particularly if it is not caught early. But the illness is curable, and testing and treatment are free and confidential in the UK, regardless of immigration status.

TB is rare in the UK and most people don’t need to worry about it, particularly if their health is generally good. Your greatest risk of catching TB is through spending a lot of time with people who have TB bacteria in their lungs or throat which they pass on by coughing or sneezing.

People who have TB or are concerned about TB often have lots of questions. If you have a general question about TB, look to see if it’s answered here. If not you can ask us directly using our questions form. Don’t worry – we would never publish your personal details.

Please be aware our advisors are not medically trained and cannot give medical advice, override the opinion of your doctor or comment on individual cases. But we are happy to provide general information about TB and TB-related issues in the UK.

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It may be a huge shock to find out you or a loved one has TB. You might not know anyone else who has the illness or what to expect.

This section of the website talks about latent TB. If you have latent TB, you have TB bacteria ‘asleep’ in your body that can ‘wake up’ and make you ill with active TB.

Many people are offered testing and treatment for latent TB, as this is a good way to help prevent getting active TB in the future. This section explains the differences between latent and active TB, why you may be tested for latent TB, what the test involves, and the treatment available for latent TB.

Doctor looking at a chest x-rayWhat parts of the body are affected by TB?

TB in the lungs or throat (pulmonary TB) are the only forms of the illness that are infectious, which means it can be passed on to other people. However, TB can also affect any other part of the body, including kidneys, brain or bones. This is called non-pulmonary TB – and is not infectious.

How is TB spread?

When someone with TB in their lungs or throat coughs or sneezes, they send droplets into the air that contain the TB bacteria. If you breathe in these bacteria over a long time you may become ill with TB. But most people won’t get ill because:

  • you normally need to spend many hours close to a person with infectious TB to breathe in enough bacteria to be at risk
  • most people’s immune systems are strong enough to kill off TB bacteria.

 TB cannot be spread through touch, sharing cutlery, bedding or clothes.

What is drug-resistant TB?

Drug-resistant TB can occur when TB bacteria become resistant to the two most powerful antibiotics normally used to treat the illness. This means the TB is more difficult to treat and treatment will take much longer (usually at least 18 months).

How common is TB in the UK?

TB cases in the UK have fallen again to around 5,000 cases annually, after a two-decade rise that began in the late 1980s. However, that is still too many for a disease that is preventable. Most people are successfully cured with a free course of treatment.

What is the TB picture globally?

Every year, around the world over 10 million people are diagnosed with TB, and 1.6 million die of the disease. This is mainly because they cannot get the drugs that would make them better.

Find out more in our patient information leaflet, Tuberculosis: your questions answered

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