TB may seem like a deadly disease of the distant past. But just this year, up to 50 babies were exposed to the disease in a United States hospital and nearly 200 staff and patients of another medical center were also believed to be exposed to TB. In fact, about 1.7 billion people (about a quarter of the world’s population!) have a latent TB infection. (1)
During the 20th century in the United States, tuberculosis was a top cause of death. Today, TB is typically treated with antibiotics. But we’re not talking about 10 days. You must take antibiotics for TB for six to nine months for them to be effective! (2)
Someone with latent tuberculosis has no symptoms, while someone with active TB disease will show TB symptoms. Is tuberculosis contagious? The short answer is yes. What are the symptoms of tuberculosis? I’m about to answer that question and a lot more. Plus, I’ll tell you some of the best natural tuberculosis treatment options and ways to prevent TB in the first place.
What Is TB?
What does TB mean? TB is a shortened medical abbreviation for tuberculosis. Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by tubercle bacillus bacteria, or Mycobacterium tuberculosis. So what is tuberculosis? Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that most often attacks the lungs. It spreads through the air from person to person. The most common form of TB is pulmonary tuberculosis, which affects the lungs. However, TB can affect any part of the body including the brain, spine and kidneys. (3)
There are actually two types of TB: latent TB infection and active TB disease. Having latent TB, or inactive TB, means that you have TB bacteria living in your body. But they’re not making you sick and therefore don’t cause any symptoms. You also can’t spread TB bacteria to others. Latent tuberculosis doesn’t cause TB symptoms and can’t spread to others. However, it is possible for inactive TB to change into active TB. This is why it’s such a good idea to get a TB test if you know you’ve been exposed to TB yet don’t have any TB symptoms. On the other hand, individuals with TB disease — the active variety of tuberculosis — typically do have TB symptoms. And they can definitely spread TB bacteria to others. Active TB disease can also be deadly if left untreated. (4)
So how you do you get TB and how is TB spread? You get it from airborne bacteria that spreads from person to person. Someone with an active TB infection can spread their germs by coughing, sneezing, laughing or even just speaking. If someone breathes in the bacteria, then it is possible he or she may develop TB. For people with a healthy immune system, they can breathe in the TB-causing bacteria and successfully fight off TB disease. So is TB contagious? Yes, it’s highly contagious if it’s active TB. But, no, latent TB is not contagious.
The TB meaning slightly changes if you are diagnosed with miliary TB. Disseminated, or miliary, tuberculosis occurs when the bacteria that cause a TB infection make their way from the lungs to other areas of the body via the bloodstream or lymphatic system. (5) Tuberculosis had become uncommon in developed countries until around 1985 when HIV become more prevalent. Because HIV has such a negative effect on the immune system, people with HIV are much more likely to get tuberculosis disease. In 1993, the U.S. instituted stronger TB control programs and TB incidence went down. However, it still remains a worldwide health concern today, especially with so many people having it and not realizing it because they don’t have TB symptoms. (6)
In 2016, there were 9,287 new TB cases reported in the United States. (7) Is TB curable? Yes, it is certainly a treatable and curable disease. The World Health Organization estimates that from the year 2000 to 2015, TB diagnosis and treatment saved 49 million lives.
Common TB Symptoms
According to the American Lung Association, a person with a TB infection, or latent TB, will have no TB symptoms. (8) For someone with a TB infection, the only signs of TB infection is a positive reaction to the tuberculin skin test or TB blood test.
The signs and symptoms of active tuberculosis disease can be similar to the symptoms of lung infection in general.
When an individual has active TB disease, TB symptoms can include: (9)
- A persistent cough (lasts 3 weeks or longer)
- Pain in the chest
- Constant fatigue
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Night sweats
- Coughing up blood or sputum (mucus from deep inside the lungs)
When TB occurs in an area of the body outside of the lungs, the symptoms of tuberculosis can vary according to the affected organ or organs. If you have tuberculosis of the kidneys, then you may experience hematuria (blood in urine). Or if you have tuberculosis of the spine, then tuberculosis symptoms can include back pain. (10)
Causes and Risk Factors
You’re probably wondering how do you get tuberculosis? Tuberculosis causes are straightforward. There is actually only one cause. Tuberculosis bacteria spreads from person to person through airborne microscopic droplets. When someone has active TB with TB symptoms and is not treated, he or she can spread TB by coughing, sneezing, laughing, singing, spitting and even just talking.
Thankfully, tuberculosis isn’t too easy to catch. But it’s a lot more common to catch TB from someone you spend a lot of time with compared to a stranger. So it’s most common to get TB from someone in your immediate family, a friend, a coworker or anyone else you spend a lot of time with on a regular basis. Anyone with active TB can pass the bacteria. When a person breathes in TB bacteria from an infected person, the bacteria can settle in the lungs and begin to grow. A lot of the time, TB remains in the lungs, but other times it can spread to other areas like the kidney, spine or brain. Once someone with active TB disease is properly treated, it still takes a minimum of 14 days for them to no longer be contagious. (11, 12)
It’s surprisingly true that when a person is exposed to TB bacteria, he or she may develop an active infection and have TB symptoms within a matter of weeks, while some may not become sick for years. Either way, it all depends on a person’s specific immune system and how well their system can fight off the TB-causing bacteria. For people with a weakened immune system, especially those with HIV infection, the TB disease risk is much greater compared to people with normal immune systems. (13)
You have an increased risk for becoming infected with TB bacteria if you (14):
- Have spent time with someone who has active TB disease
- Lack access to medical care
- Live or work where TB disease is more common including health-care facilities, long-term care facilities, homeless shelters and jails
- Are from a country or have recently visited a country where there are high rates of tuberculosis and drug-resistant tuberculosis including Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia, Latin America and the Caribbean Islands
- Living in a refugee camp or shelter
You have a higher chance of acquiring active TB disease (rather than latent TB) once infected with TB bacteria if you:
- Have HIV
- Have any other health issues that weaken the immune system including diabetes, severe kidney disease and certain cancers
- Were recently infected with TB bacteria within the past two years
- Are under the age of 5 years
- Have health issues that weaken the immune system
- Abuse alcohol and/or drugs
- Smoke cigarettes
- Were previously not treated correctly for a latent TB infection or active TB disease
It is always recommended that people who know they have been exposed to TB should get a TB skin test as soon as they can, even if they have no TB symptoms. Even if that test comes back negative, they should also get another test later on since there can be years between exposure to TB and development of the disease and TB symptoms. If your TB test is positive, don’t be alarmed; this does not necessarily indicate that you have active TB. A positive skin test does mean you definitely have been exposed to TB bacteria. Your doctor will likely recommend taking medication to prevent your latent TB infection from turning into active TB disease, with full blown TB symptoms. (15)
Conventional treatment for TB always includes antibiotics, which you must take for a much longer time than typically required for other bacterial infections. It’s common to take antibiotics for six to nine months for tuberculosis. Depending on your age, overall health, form of TB (latent or active), the infection’s location, and possible antibiotic drug resistance, the type and duration of medications will vary.
When you have active tuberculosis, especially a drug-resistant strain, conventional treatment will include several different drugs at once. With drug-resistant TB, a combination of antibiotics and injectable medications are typically given to a patient for somewhere between 20 to 30 months. So that’s a really long time to be on antibiotics. Now the problem is that some strains of TB are actually developing a resistance to the medications used for the drug-resistance cases. (16)
These drug-resistant strains of TB occur when an antibiotic does not successfully kill off the TB-causing bacteria. The bacteria that survive become resistant to that specific antibiotic and then also often becomes resistant to other antibiotics too. (17) This is a huge ongoing challenge in the world of conventional TB treatment.
5 Natural Ways to Prevent and Treat TB Symptoms
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “TB should never be treated with alternative therapies alone. To cure the disease, and avoid spreading it to other people, you must be treated with prescription medications. Some complementary and alternative therapies (CAM) treatments may be useful as supportive therapies.” (18) The following recommendations can help prevent TB and also be part of a treatment plan for people with TB and TB symptoms.
1. Vitamin D
At least two scientific studies have linked vitamin D to successful prevention and treatment of tuberculosis. The first study published in the journal Science found a significant link between vitamin D levels and resistance to tuberculosis. The researchers found that African American individuals known to have a greater susceptibility to TB also had lower serum levels of vitamin D. Furthermore, these researchers found that vitamin D appears to activate toll-like receptors (TRLs) that trigger “direct antimicrobial activity against intracellular bacteria” including the bacteria that causes TB. (19) So what does that mean in plain English? Vitamin D seems to play a substantial role in helping the body to successfully fight off major diseases like TB by killing off the bacteria that cause them.
Another study looked at 67 pulmonary tuberculosis patients who randomly received vitamin D (0.25 milligrams per day) or a placebo in the sixth initial week of their TB treatment. After treatment, they evaluated the patients blood chemistry and other markers of disease improvement, including a radiologic examination. The researchers found that more subjects who took vitamin D had improvement in their radiologic exams than the non-vitamin D group. (20)
So vitamin D appears to be a way to not only prevent TB, but also to treat it. Vitamin D rich foods and vitamin D supplements are two ways to get more vitamin D on a daily basis.
2. Essential Oils
With the increase in drug-resistant TB caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, there is definitely a need to find more natural and effective ways to treat this worldwide health concern. Essential oils from three different plants native to Colombia have been shown to have antimicrobial activity against drug-resistant TB. The three essentials oils evaluated in a 2011 study included Salvia aratocensis, Turnera diffusa (Damiana) and Lippia americana. The essential oils were tested against 15 strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. All showed potential in fighting TB, with Salvia aratocensis being the most powerful of the three oils. (21)
Some other more well-known essential oils that have shown their strength in fighting tuberculosis include eucalyptus and lemon eucalyptus essential oil. Since TB spreads from person to person via the air, it makes sense that diffusing an anti-TB essential oil could be helpful. Research published in 2014 was looking for new ways to manage tuberculosis, especially with the increased number of drug-resistant cases. The researchers found that lemon eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora) essential oil contains anti-TB active constituents and is likely valuable for inhalation therapy to reduce the number of contagious TB patients and also to reduce the spread of TB. (22)
3. Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) can be very helpful when it comes to immune health. As natural adaptogens, they help balance, restore and protect the body. Research has shown that astragalus may be particularly helpful when it comes to treating TB. You can take a standardized extract of astragalus (250 to 500 milligrams) three to four times daily. For immune support, you can take a standardized rhodiola extract (150 to 300 milligrams) one to three times per day. (23)
To prevent TB and improve TB symptoms, probiotics are absolutely key. Not only do probiotics boost the immune system, but if you choose to take antibiotics for your TB, then you’ll absolutely want to be putting as much good bacteria into your system as possible since those antibiotics will not only be killing harmful bacteria, but the good bacteria as well. For optimal infection-fighting immune health, I would recommend making sure you are getting a lot of probiotic-rich foods in your diet and/or taking a probiotic supplement daily.
5. General Anti-TB Dietary Recommendations
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the following tips can help reduce TB risk and TB symptoms: (24)
- Eliminate food allergens
- Make sure you’re eating foods high in B-vitamins as well as iron-rich foods
- Get plenty of antioxidants in your diet (fruits, vegetables and green tea are all great sources)
- Eat high quality protein such as lean grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon
- Eliminate sources of trans-fatty acids in your diet such as fast food and processed foods
- Avoid refined foods like white breads, white rice, pasta and refined sugar
- Avoid coffee, alcohol and tobacco products
- Keep caffeine intake low and choose high quality organic caffeine sources
An active case of tuberculosis can be fatal if not treated. Untreated active TB can also spread from the lungs to other areas of the body. Complications due to tuberculosis can include spinal pain, liver problems, kidney problems, heart problems, brain swelling, or joint damage. (25)
Someone with TB disease can feel totally fine with no TB symptoms or only have a cough from time to time. If you think you have been exposed to TB, it’s a good idea to get a TB test. (26) According to the CDC, millions of people in the U.S. currently have latent TB infection. If left untreated, these individuals are at risk for developing active TB disease. (27)
If you have active TB, one of the best TB precautions you can take is to do what you can to keep your germs to yourself, especially since it typically takes a few weeks of treatment before you’re no longer contagious. To reduce the spread of germs: (28)
- Keep your home well-ventilated.
- Stay home as much as possible in the first few weeks of treatment.
- Wear a mask when you have to go out or be close to others at home.
- Use a tissue to cover your mouth anytime you sneeze, cough or laugh.
- Experts strongly recommend not going to school or work and not sleeping in a room with anyone else during the first few weeks of treatment for active TB.
Always speak with your doctor before combining any natural treatments with conventional treatments.
Unfortunately, tuberculosis, or TB, is not a disease of the past. It’s still surprisingly common around the world. And because so many people have a latent infection and don’t know it, TB awareness and testing is definitely key to reducing the spread of this infectious disease. If you know you’ve been exposed to TB, experts advise that you get tested as soon as possible.
While antibiotics are conventionally recommended for active TB disease, there are a lot of natural ways you can boost your immune system to help fight off the infection. As TB drug-resistance continues to grow, hopefully more research and alternative therapies will be developed. Antibiotics are clearly failing us all in a lot of ways; they’re not only killing our good bacteria, they’re not even killing the bad bacteria! If you have TB, the good news is that you can be treated and cured. But I definitely suggest doing your homework. Don’t settle when it comes to your care. Ask your health care provider a lot of questions so you can be an educated and empowered patient.