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Pulmonary tuberculosis

Alternative names

TB; Tuberculosis - pulmonary; Consumption


Pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium

tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis). The lungs are primarily involved, but the infection can spread to
other organs.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Tuberculosis can develop after inhaling droplets sprayed into the air from a cough or sneeze by
someone infected with M. tuberculosis. The disease is characterized by the development of
granulomas (granular tumors) in the infected tissues.

The usual site of the disease is the lungs, but other organs may be involved. The primary stage of
the infection is usually asymptomatic (without symptoms). In the United States, the majority of
people will recover from primary TB infection without further evidence of the disease.

Primary pulmonary TB develops in the minority of people whose immune systems do not
successfully contain the primary infection. In this case, the disease may occur within weeks after
the primary infection. TB may also lie dormant for years and reappear after the initial infection is

Infants, the elderly, and individuals who are immunocompromised -- for example, those with
AIDS, those undergoing chemotherapy, or transplant recipients taking antirejection medications --
are at higher risk for progression to disease or reactivation of dormant disease. In pulmonary TB,
the extent of the disease can vary from minimal to massive involvement. Without effective
therapy, the disease becomes progressively worse.

The risk of contracting TB increases with the frequency of contact with people who have the
disease, with crowded or unsanitary living conditions and with poor nutrition. Recently, there has
been an increase in cases of TB in the U.S. Factors that may contribute to the increase in
tuberculous infection in a population are:

• Increase in HIV infection

• Increase in number of homeless individuals (poor environment and poor nutrition)
• The appearance of drug-resistant strains of TB

Incomplete treatment of TB infections (such as failure to take medications for the prescribed
length of time) can contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Individuals with immune systems damaged by AIDS have a higher risk of developing active
tuberculosis -- either from new exposure to TB or reactivation of dormant mycobacteria. In
addition, without the aid of an active immune system, treatment is more difficult and the disease
is more resistant to therapy.
In the U.S., there are 10 cases of TB per 100,000 people, but it varies dramatically by area of
residence and socio-economic class. Also see:

• Disseminated tuberculosis (affects the whole body)

• Atypical mycobacterial infection


• Limited to minor cough and mild fever, if apparent

• Fatigue
• Unintentional weight loss
• Coughing up blood
• Fever and night sweats
• Phlegm-producing cough

Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:

• Wheezing
• Excessive sweating, especially at night
• Chest pain
• Breathing difficulty

Signs and tests

Examination of the lungs by stethoscope can reveal crackles (unusual breath sounds). Enlarged
or tender lymph nodes may be present in the neck or other areas. Fluid may be detectable
around a lung. Clubbing of the fingers or toes may be present.

Tests may include:

• Chest x-ray
• Sputum cultures
• Tuberculin skin test
• Bronchoscopy
• Thoracentesis
• Chest CT
• Interferon (IFN)-gamma blood test. This type of test looks for an immune response to
proteins produced by M. tuberculosis. In December 2004, the FDA approved the
QuantiFERON-TB Gold (QFT-Gold) test as an alternate to the traditional tuberculin skin
test (TST).
• Rarely, biopsy of the affected tissue (typically lungs, pleura, or lymph nodes)


The goal of treatment is to cure the infection with antitubercular drugs. Daily oral doses of multiple
drugs -- which may include combinations of rifampin, isoniazid, pyrazinamide, ethambutol, or
occasionally others -- are continued until culture results show the drug sensitivity of the
mycobacterial infection. This helps to guide the selection of drug therapy.
Treatment is typically continued for 6 months, but longer courses may be required for AIDS
patients or those whose disease responds slowly. For atypical tuberculosis infections, or drug-
resistant strains, other drugs and different lengths of therapy may be indicated to treat the

Hospitalization may be indicated to prevent the spread of the disease to others until the
contagious period has been resolved with drug therapy. Normal activity can be continued after the
contagious period.

Support Groups

The stress of illness may be helped by joining a support group where members share common
experiences and problems. See lung disease - support group.

Expectations (prognosis)

Symptoms may improve in 2 to 3 weeks. A chest x-ray will not show this improvement until later.
Prognosis is excellent if pulmonary TB is diagnosed early and treatment is begun.


Pulmonary TB can cause permanent lung damage if not treated early.

All medications used to treat TB have some toxicity. Rifampin and isoniazid may both cause a
non-infectious hepatitis. Rifampin may also cause an orange or brown coloration of tears and

Those taking ethambutol should have their vision monitored, as this drug sometimes affects the
eye. Any rash, abdominal pain, jaundice, or tingling in toes or fingers may be a sign of drug
toxicity and should be reported to your doctor immediately.

Other complications include drug resistance to particular TB strains and a relapse of the disease
in some patients.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you have been exposed to tuberculosis, or if symptoms of TB

Call your health care provider if symptoms persist despite treatment.

Also call if new symptoms develop, including indications that complications are developing.


TB is a preventable disease, even in those who have been exposed to an infected person. Skin
testing (PPD) for TB is used in high risk populations or in individuals who may have been
exposed to TB, such as health care workers.
A positive skin test indicates prior TB exposure. Preventive therapy should be discussed with your
doctor. Individuals exposed to tuberculosis should be skin tested immediately and a follow-up test
should be done at a later date, if the initial test is negative.

Prompt treatment is extremely important in controlling the spread of tuberculosis for those who
have already progressed to active TB disease.

A BCG vaccination to prevent TB is given in some countries with a high incidence of TB, but its
effectiveness remains controversial. It is not routinely used in the United States. People who have
had BCG may still be skin tested for TB and results of testing (if positive) discussed with one's


Ferrara G, Losi M, Meacci M, et al. Routine Hospital Use of a New Commercial Whole Blood
Interferon-(gamma) Assay for the Diagnosis of Tuberculosis Infection. Am J Respir Crit Care Med.
2005 Sep 1;172(5):631-5. Epub 2005 Jun 16.

US Centers for Disease Control. Treatment of Tuberculosis. MMWR 2003; 52.

Diagnostic Standards: Classification of TB in Adults and Children. Am J Respir Crit Care Med
2000; 161.