What Is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, or TB, is a bacterial infection that typically targets the lungs. TB can also infect other areas of the body, such as the kidneys, spine, or brain.

TB is spread from the lungs of a person with TB through coughing. When a person coughs or sneezes, the bacteria travel into the air and may be inhaled by a person standing nearby. TB is most commonly spread through repeated contact, such as within a family. Short-term exposure can also cause TB.

At one point, TB was the leading cause of death in the United States. As treatments were developed, TB rates began to drop. Today, there are far fewer cases, but the disease is still present.

TB is still a major health problem throughout the world, particularly in Africa. People with AIDS also have a higher risk of getting TB.

Symptoms depend on where the bacteria have settled and grown in the body. The lungs are often infected. Symptoms of TB infection in the lungs include:

  • A cough that lasts three weeks or longer
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood or phlegm
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever and chills
  • Night sweats

TB can usually be treated successfully with antibiotics. Without treatment, the disease can be fatal.

What Is the BCG vaccine?

The Bacille Calmette-Guerin vaccine, or BCG, can help prevent TB. However, this vaccine does not always protect people from getting TB.

The vaccine contains live, weakened bacteria. It is given as shot in the arm.

Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?

The following individuals should be considered for vaccination:

  • Children who have a negative tuberculin skin test and who are continually exposed to a person who has untreated or drug resistant tuberculosis, and the child cannot be separated from this person
  • Healthcare workers and people who work in labs who work where there is ongoing transmission of drug-resistant strains of TB that have not been reduced with precautions

The vaccine is usually given one time. It may be given twice in some cases.

What Are the Risks Associated With BCG Vaccine?

The vaccine may cause a TB skin test to have a false-positive reading. This means that you may test positive for TB even though you do not have it. Blood tests are available to check for TB infection in people that are not affected by previous BCG vaccination.

Common side effects of the vaccine include:

  • Redness at the injection site
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches

More serious side effects may rarely occur and could lead to serious illness or death.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction require medical care right away.

Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?

You should not get the vaccine if you:

  • Have a compromised immune system
  • Are undergoing an organ transplant
  • Are pregnant

What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?

Containing TB depends on giving antibiotics and isolating people who are infected. It is important to take all of the antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria and to avoid spreading it to others.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: David Horn, MD
  • Review Date: 11/2013 -
  • Update Date: 11/19/2013 -
  • WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    http://www.cdc.gov

  • The BCG World Atlas on BCG Policies

    http://www.bcgatlas.org

  • Active tuberculosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated November 13, 2013. Accessed November 19, 2013.

  • Basic TB facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/tb/topic/basics/default.htm. Updated March 13, 2013. Accessed November 19, 2013.

  • BCG vaccine. DailyMed website. Available at: http://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/lookup.cfm?setid=a83f0b99-9038-4c5a-aaac-8792b32838fe. Updated September 2012. Accessed November 19, 2013.

  • Kaufmann SH. Fact and fiction in tuberculosis vaccine research: 10 years later. Lancet Infect Dis. 2011;11(8):633-640.

  • Kaufmann SH, Hussey G, et al. New vaccines for tuberculosis. Lancet. 2010 Jun 12;375(9731):2110-2119.

  • Tuberculosis in children fact sheet. American Lung Association website. Available at: http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/tuberculosis/tuberculosis-in-children-fact.html. Updated March 2013. Accessed November 19, 2013.

  • Rouanet C, Locht C. Boosting BCG to protect against TB. Expert Rev Respir Med. 2010 Jun;4(3):339-348.

  • TB vaccine (BCG). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/tb/topic/vaccines/default.htm. Updated August 14, 2012. Accessed November 19, 2013.