Back to Infectious Diseases
Tuberculosis, also called TB, is caused by a bacterium, usually the
Mycobacterium tuberculosis. If left untreated, more than 50% will die
in a few years time. It causes about 2-3 million deaths per year out
of 9-10 million cases and is especially prevalent in undeveloped,
Due to the variety of its symptoms, TB was not identified as a
unified disease until the 1820s and was not named tuberculosis until
1839 by J.L. Schoenlein. Some forms of the disease were probably known
to the ancient Greeks, if not before, as the origins of the disease
are in the first domestication of cattle (which also gave humanity
The bacillus-causing tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, was
described on March 24, 1882 by Robert Koch. He received the Nobel
Prize in physiology or medicine for this discovery in 1905. Koch did
not believe that bovine (cattle) and human tuberculosis were similar,
which held back the recognition of infected milk as a source of
infection. Later, this source was eliminated by pasteurization. Koch
announced a glycerine extract of the tubercle bacilli as a "remedy"
for tuberculosis in 1890, calling it tuberculin. It was not effective,
but was later adapted by von Pirquet for a test for pre-symptomatic
The first genuine success was in immunizing against tuberculosis.
Developed from attenuated bovine strain tuberculosis by Albert
Calmette and Camille Guerin in 1906 was BCG (Bacillus of Calmette and
Guerin). It was first used on humans on July 18, 1921 in France,
although national arrogance prevented its widespread use in either the
USA, Great Britain, or Germany until after World War II.
Tuberculosis caused the most widespread public concern in the 19th
and early 20th centuries as the endemic disease of the urban poor. In
1815 England one in four deaths were of consumption; by 1918 one in
six deaths in France were still caused by TB. After the establishment
in the 1880s that the disease was contagious, TB was made a notifiable
disease in Britain; there were campaigns to stop spitting in public
places, and the infected poor were "encouraged" to enter sanatoria
that rather resembled prisons. Whatever the purported benefits of the
fresh air and labour in the sanatoria, 75% of those who entered were
dead within five years (1908).
In Europe, deaths from TB fell from 500 out of 100,000 Europeans in
1850 to 50 out of 100,000 by 1950. Improvements in public health were
reducing tuberculosis even before the arrival of antibiotics, although
the disease's significance was still such that when the Medical
Research Council was formed in Britain in 1913 its first project was
It was not until 1946 with the development of the antibiotic
streptomycin that treatment rather than prevention became a
possibility. Prior to then only surgical intervention was possible as
supposed treatment (other than sanatoria), including the pneumothorax
technique: collapsing an infected lung to "rest" it and allow lesions
to heal, which was an accomplished technique but was of little benefit
and was discontinued after 1946.
Hopes that the disease could be completely eliminated have been
dashed since the rise of drug-resistant strains in the 1980s. For
example, TB cases in Britain, numbering around 50,000 in 1955, had
fallen to around 5,500 in 1987, but in 2001 there were over 7,000
confirmed cases. Due to the elimination of public health facilities in
New York in the 1970s, there was a resurgence in the 1980s. The number
of those failing to complete their course of drugs was very high. NY
had to cope with more than 20,000 "unnecessary" TB-patients with many
multi-drug resistant strains (i.e., resistant to, at least, both
Rifampin and Isoniazid). The resurgance of tuberculosis resulted in
the declaration of a global health emergency by the World Health
Orginization in 1993.
In 2003, by disabling a set of genes, researchers accidentally
created a more lethal and rapidly reproducing strain of tuberculosis
Are you a doctor or a nurse?
Do you want to join the Doctors Lounge online medical community?
Participate in editorial activities (publish, peer review, edit) and
give a helping hand to the largest online community of patients.
Click on the link below to see the requirements:
Doctors Lounge Membership
Symptoms and signs
The TB bacillus can attack any part of the body and so can produce
a series of different symptoms but always eventually creates the
distinctive tubercles or tuberculous nodules, small lesions consisting
of dead grayish matter containing TB bacteria.
Transmission of tuberculosis infection is usually from droplets
coughed out by an infected person.
On the other hand, Mycobacterium bovis usually spreads through
infected milk, although it too can spread via droplets. Humans are
susceptible to this bacterium that causes bovine tuberculosis.
Children up to four years of age are more at risk than adults.
Tuberculous meningitis and miliary tuberculosis (so named because the
lesions formed resemble millet seeds), a form of TB septicaemia, is
more common in the young than the old.
TB is divided into pulmonary and extra-pulmonary TB. The most
common form in adults is pulmonary tuberculosis, the "classic" form of
TB, in which the lungs are diseased. The disease begins gradually with
coughing - later traces of blood are coughed up in the sputum (haemoptysis).
Untreated, it leads to fever, weight-loss, and death. The term
consumption arose because sufferers appear as if they were "consumed"
from within by the disease.
After droplet infection, the MTB causes a local infection in the
lung. After that, it moves to the hilar lymph nodes. The bacteria can
later spread via the blood to all parts of the body. This is the
reason that one can have TB in every organ, although pulmonary TB is
most common. Other (extra-pulmonary) TB sites are lymph nodes, spinal
column, kidneys, and so on. In 90% of the infected people the body is
able to defend itself well enough so that a single exposure is often
not sufficient to cause infection with TB. In 1% the primary infection
causes subsequent tuberculosis. The remaining 9% will get TB later,
due to reactivation of dormant bacilli, usually within a few years
after the infection. But this can happen even decades later. Chances
of tuberculosis reactivating in the body are increased in cases of
acquired immunodeficiency - whether due to AIDS, drugs, or other
causes. A depressed immune system also makes miliary tuberculosis more
A chest X-ray is essential in all cases of suspected pulmonary
tuberculosis. The classical X-ray picture of post-primary tuberculosis
is of bilateral, posterior apical, cavitation-forming, caseous
Sputum smears and cultures should be done for acid-fast bacilli if
the patient is producing sputum. If no sputum is being produced, a
laryngeal swab, bronchoscopy or fine needle aspiration should be
considered. Other mycobacteria are also AFB. Further PCR or gene probe
tests can distinguish M. tuberculosis from other mycobacteria. If this
is not available, a culture of the AFB can distinguish the various
forms of mycobacteria, although results from this may take 4-8 weeks
for a conclusive answer.
The Mantoux test should be done in all cases of suspected
tuberculosis, although the results must be interpreted carefully.
Purified protein derivative (PPD) tuberculin, a precipitate of
non-species-specific molecules obtained from filtrates of sterilized,
concentrated cultures, is injected intradermally (into the skin) and
read 48 to 72 hours later. A patient who has been exposed to the
bacteria is expected to mount an immune response in the skin
containing the bacterial proteins. An induration (hardened spot of
skin) of more than 10mm to 10 Mantoux units is considered a positive
result, indicating TB infection. A negative test does not exclude
active tuberculosis, especially if the test was done within six to
eight weeks of acquiring the infection, if the infection is
overwhelming, or if the patient is immunocompromised.
There is no relation between the effectiveness of the BCG vaccine
and a positive Mantoux test. After BCG vaccination, testing with a
Mantoux test is not useful and unnecessary. One BCG is enough;
revaccination is not useful. A previous BCG vaccination sometimes
gives false-positive results. This makes the Mantoux test less useful
in BCG vaccinated people. In order to improve the Mantoux test,
several other tests are being developed. A promising one is a blood
test that looks at the reaction of T-lymphocytes to the antigens ESAT6
Tuberculosis should be suspected when a persistent respiratory
illness in an otherwise healthy individual does not respond to regular
antibiotics (such as penicillin or amoxicillin).
When someone is diagnosed with tuberculosis, all their close
contacts should be screened for TB with a Mantoux test or a chest
x-ray or both. In Britain the obsolete Heaf test is still used.
The current accepted first-line therapy is a combination of the
drugs rifampicin, isoniazid (INH), pyrizinamide, and ethambutol.
Supplemental pyridoxine (vitamin B6) is often given with these drugs.
After two months, the number of drugs is reduced. A typical treatment
for a standard (i.e. non-drug resistant) strain of TB is 2HRZE / 4HR
(= two months of INH, Rifampin, Pyrazinmid and Ethambutol followed by
four months of Rifampin and INH). The number of relapses is about 2-3%
this way. Medication can be given two or three times per week
(different/higher dosages) with the same results as daily therapy.
Why four drugs? If only one drug is given, what ends up happening
is that all the bacteria sensitive to that drug are killed and three
months later, the patient will be infected with progeny of the
bacteria that were resistant to that particular drug. Rifampicin and
isoniazid are bactericidal agents that kill the bacteria, pyrizinamide
acts well against the intracellular bacteria which are dormant inside
macrophages and other cells, and ethambutol is a bacteriostatic agent
that inhibits bacterial proliferation while the other drugs kill off
the TB. Rifampin is the drug that gives the best "sterilization"; this
means that it will kill dormant bacteria very well in order to lower
the number of relapses after a successful treatment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) currently recommends DOTS or
Directly Observed Treatment, Short-course. The mainstay of this is the
DOT or Directly Observed Treatment portion which involves health care
workers directly monitoring tuberculosis patients actually swallowing
their anti-tuberculous therapy for at least the first two months of
treatment. Treatment with properly implemented DOTS has a success rate
exceeding 95% and prevents the emergence of further multi-drug
resistant strains of tuberculosis.
Streptomycin is used if the initial 4-drug therapy fails, often in
conjunction with other second-line drugs such as capreomycin,
cycloserine, new macrolides, quinolones, and protionamide.
Streptomycin and capreomycin are not available as oral medications and
must be injected.
Adverse drug reactions are expected in 20-25% of patients but only
5% of all patients will have a severe enough reaction to warrant a
change in their drug regimen. Hepatic damage is the most significant
of the drug reactions.
Supervised therapy, in which the patient's continued use of their
prescribed medication is ensured by direct observation, has a cure
rate of about 98%.
BCG immunization gives the receiver between 50% to 80% resistance
to TB. In tropical areas where the incidence of atypical mycobacteria
is high (exposure to non-TB mycobacteria gives some protection against
TB), the effectiveness of BCGs is much lower than in areas where
mycobacteria are much less prevalent. Infected people have a 10%
chance to get active TB. Usually INH-prophylaxis is advised to people
with positive mantoux (skin) tests. After taking six months of INH,
the chance to get active TB is lowered to about 3%.
Before a BCG vaccination is given, a Heaf test (see Mantoux test)
is often performed to determine whether a subject is already immune to
TB. A Heaf test is also commonly used to determine whether someone
already has TB, but the BCG vaccine is not effective in people who are
suffering from the disease at the time of vaccination. In the United
Kingdom, children aged 10-14 are typically immunized during school.