The same bacteria that cause tuberculosis (TB) in your lungs can cause several types of abdominal TB. This form can be difficult to diagnose but can result in severe complications without prompt treatment.

Abdominal TB affects the abdomen’s organs, including the stomach, intestines, liver, and spleen.

The bacteria that cause TB affect your lungs primarily, but an infection can spread to other body parts through your bloodstream or lymphatic system.

Experts consider abdominal TB one of the most challenging forms to diagnose due to its varied symptoms and similarity to other diseases.

This article discusses abdominal TB, its causes, risk factors, symptoms, and more.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria cause TB. The bacteria can spread when a person with active pulmonary TB coughs, sneezes, or talks, releasing respiratory droplets into the air.

These droplets contain bacteria. If inhaled by another person, they settle in the lungs and grow. The bacteria can then move through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to various organs, including the abdomen, leading to abdominal TB.

You can also get abdominal TB by swallowing sputum from someone with active pulmonary TB or drinking milk with a similar bacteria type, Mycobacterium bovis.

Several factors can increase your risk of contracting the bacteria that cause abdominal TB, including:

  • having a weakened immune system
  • taking medications that suppress the immune system
  • being in close physical contact with someone with an infection
  • living in overcrowded environments with limited ventilation
  • traveling to regions with many TB cases
  • experiencing certain medical conditions such as diabetes or malnutrition

Types of abdominal TB include:

  • Gastrointestinal TB: This form of abdominal TB affects the gastrointestinal tract primarily, including the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.
  • Peritoneal TB: This form of abdominal TB involves the peritoneum, the thin membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers the abdominal organs. It’s one of the most common forms of abdominal TB.
  • Tuberculous lymphadenitis: This form of abdominal TB affects the lymph nodes in your abdomen.
  • Hepatobiliary TB: This form of abdominal TB involves the liver and bile ducts. It can lead to granuloma formations in the liver or cause inflammation of the bile ducts.

These are the common types of abdominal TB. But TB can also affect other abdominal organs like your spleen, adrenal glands, and pancreas.

Symptoms of abdominal TB may include:

If you have concerning symptoms, consider talking with a doctor for a proper evaluation and diagnosis.

To diagnose abdominal TB, doctors may use several diagnostic techniques, including:

  • Medical history and physical examination: A doctor will ask you about your symptoms, medical history, and possible exposure to TB. They’ll also conduct a thorough physical examination to assess signs of abdominal abnormalities.
  • Imaging tests: You may undergo imaging tests such as an abdominal X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound. These imaging techniques can help identify characteristic features like enlarged lymph nodes, fluid collections, or lesions in the abdomen.
  • Tuberculin skin test: A doctor may perform this test. It involves injecting a small amount of purified protein derivative from the TB bacterium under your skin. They will then examine the injection site after 48–72 hours to check for a localized reaction, indicating TB exposure.
  • Blood tests: A doctor may order blood tests such as the interferon-gamma release assay to help detect antibodies or antigens associated with TB.
  • Stool and sputum examination: A doctor may request a stool or sputum sample to check for TB bacteria if you have symptoms such as chronic cough or gastrointestinal health effects.
  • Biopsy: In some instances, a biopsy may be necessary. This involves getting a small tissue sample from the affected area, typically through laparoscopy or endoscopy, to examine it under a microscope for TB infection.

Treating abdominal TB can include:

  • Antituberculosis medications: Treating TB involves a combination of antibiotics effective against the bacteria. People usually take these medications for 6–9 months, but the duration can extend to 9–12 months or longer in some cases. The most commonly used medications include:
    • isoniazid
    • rifampin
    • pyrazinamide
    • ethambutol
  • Supportive care: Along with antibiotics, supportive care is crucial for managing the symptoms and complications associated with abdominal TB. This may include adequate nutrition and pain management.
  • Surgical intervention: In some cases, you may need surgery to manage complications. Doctors may also consider surgery when medical therapy is ineffective.
It’s important to complete your treatment course

Remember to complete the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed by a doctor, even if symptoms improve or disappear before the treatment duration ends. Incomplete treatment can lead to treatment ineffectiveness, the development of drug-resistant TB strains, and disease relapse.

Abdominal TB can lead to several complications, including:

Your outlook with abdominal TB can vary, depending on several factors, including:

  • how quickly you get a diagnosis
  • the extent of the infection
  • the presence of complications
  • your overall health

Untreated abdominal TB can lead to death in about 6–20% of cases.

Here are some frequently asked questions about abdominal TB.

How common is abdominal tuberculosis?

Abdominal TB is relatively rarer than pulmonary TB. Its exact frequency varies across different regions, but experts estimate it accounts for about 5% of all TB cases.

Is abdominal tuberculosis contagious?

Abdominal TB itself isn’t directly contagious. The bacteria that cause TB are transmissible to others when someone with active TB in their lungs coughs, sneezes, or talks near another person. That person may inhale released respiratory droplets containing the bacteria, which can lead to the infection.

Taking preventive measures can stop the transmission of TB.

How long does it take to cure abdominal tuberculosis?

Treatment for abdominal TB typically lasts 6–9 months, but it may extend to 9–12 months or longer, depending on the infection severity, the organs involved, and individual factors.

Abdominal TB is a relatively rare form of TB that affects the organs in your abdomen. Without treatment, it can cause various symptoms and lead to complications such as intestinal obstruction.

Prompt diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and close follow-up are essential for a favorable outcome. If you suspect abdominal TB, consider talking with a doctor for a proper evaluation and treatment plan.