TB Info

Tuberculosis is a dangerous bacterial infection that attacks your lungs. Learn more about how it’s spread, who’s at risk, symptoms, & treatment.


What is tuberculosis? What causes tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, commonly called TB, is a very old and dangerous sickness. In the old days it was called consumption because it literally consumed the patient’s lungs. TB is caused by a bacteria called mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria usually attack the lungs (Pulmonary TB) but can also attack any other part of the body (Extra Pulmonary TB). TB germs may also lay dormant in the infected person’s body and cause no symptoms (Latent TB). Pulmonary TB is highly infectious but Extra Pulmonary and Latent TB is not infectious.

The symptoms of tuberculosis?

Symptoms of tuberculosis depend on where in the body the TB bacteria are active.

Pulmonary tuberculosis may cause;

  • a bad cough lasting longer than two weeks,
  • Chest pain,
  • coughing up of blood in the sputum,
  • night sweats,
  • lack of appetite,
  • weight loss,
  • Weakness/fatigue.

Inactive (Latent) TB has no symptoms.

How is tuberculosis treated? Is there a cure?

Active TB can always be cured with a combination of TB drugs, providing that the TB has not become multi or extremely drug resistant. The normal course of treatment for the first infection of pulmonary TB lasts for six months. After one week of treatment the TB is no longer contagious.

To ensure compliance, it is recommended that the patient takes his or her pills daily in the presence of a treatment supporter. This approach is called DOTS (directly observed treatment, short course). The DOTS system has got many benefits ensuring less treatment failures and prevent drug resistance.

How is tuberculosis spread?

TB is an airborne disease. It means that the bacteria when a person with active TB coughs, sneezes or spits. People nearby may breathe in the tuberculosis bacteria and become infected. Left untreated, each person with active TB can infect between 10 and 15 people every year on average.

People who have inactive (Latent) TB do not feel sick, do not have symptoms and do not spread tuberculosis. The TB bacteria can remain inactive in the body for as long as the infected person maintains a healthy immune system.

A person’s immune system can become compromised due to HIV/AIDS for example. Other reasons for their immunity to be compromised are severe stress, poor nutritional intake, lack of exercise, as well as excessive use of drugs or alcohol.

  • South Africa is one of the countries with the highest burden of TB, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics giving an estimated incidence of 500,000 cases of active TB.
  • 1% of the population of about 50 million develop active TB disease each year.
  • Worldwide South Africa has the third highest incidence of any country after India and China, and the incidence has increased by 400% over the past 15 years.
  • Out of the 500,000 incident cases in South Africa it is estimated by WHO that about 330,000 (66%) people have both HIV and TB infection.
  • The latest figure from the South African Department of Health is that 73% of TB patients are HIV positive.
  • Figures are provided by both WHO and the South African government.
  • Where the figures are different, this can be because the WHO is always providing estimated figures, whereas the South African government is providing actual figures.
  • WHO give a prevalence figure for active TB of 390,000 people in South Africa in 2011.