Without a correct diagnosis and treatment, tuberculosis can sometimes be a serious, potentially life threatening infection. However, with the right steps, it is curable.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a potentially serious bacterial infection that can affect your lungs and other parts of your body. It’s spread through droplets when someone with TB talks, coughs, or sneezes.

TB can be asymptomatic, so it’s possible to have the infection and not even know it. In some cases, TB mimics mild, cold-like symptoms, which can delay or prevent people from seeking care.

Even though TB is curable, without a correct diagnosis and treatment, TB can progress to a more serious, life threatening infection.

Here’s what to know to protect your health.

Stages of TB

There are three stages of TB:

  • Exposure: This stage is when you’ve had contact with the bacteria but test negative for TB and don’t experience any symptoms.
  • Latent: This stage is when you test positive with a TB skin test, but a chest X-ray and sputum smear test results are standard. The infection is inactive, so you don’t experience any symptoms. Still, TB bacteria are circulating throughout your body, and in some cases, it can evolve into active TB.
  • Active: This stage is when you test positive for TB with a skin test, chest X-ray, and sputum smear test. With active TB, you’ll also experience symptoms. Some develop active TB soon after exposure to the bacteria, while others have latent TB for years before developing active TB.
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With active TB, the bacteria multiply and attack the body. TB infection primarily affects the lungs but can also spread to other parts of the body, such as:

  • bones
  • brain
  • lymph nodes
  • kidneys
  • skin
  • spine

When active TB spreads, it increases your risk of additional health problems and can even be life threatening. Certain people, including babies or young children and those with a compromised immune system, have a higher risk of developing active TB than the general population.

How common is death from tuberculosis?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 66% of people who develop TB and don’t seek treatment may die.

However, with the correct treatment, TB-related death is rare.

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A 2014 study found that, even after successful TB treatment, people who had the infection lost an average of 3.6 years of life expectancy compared to those who never had TB. Findings from a 2020 study note that, without treatment, TB can take an average of 7 years off of average life expectancy.

Even though TB can reduce longevity, treatment saves lives. Experts credit current treatments with saving over 53 million lives worldwide since 2000. And most people who develop TB go on to live a regular life.

Tuberculosis symptoms

Symptoms of an active TB infection include:

  • persistent cough lasting over 3 weeks
  • coughing up blood or mucus
  • chest pain
  • loss of appetite
  • unintended weight loss
  • fever
  • chills
  • night sweats
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With prompt diagnosis and treatment, the vast majority of TB cases are curable.

Latent TB can be asymptomatic but still requires treatment. A doctor can prescribe antibiotics to help clear the bacteria from your body and prevent it from developing into active TB. You’ll need to take medication as prescribed for 6–9 months.

Active TB is also treated with antibiotics. You’ll typically need a combination of antibiotics to clear the infection from your body. You’ll also need to continue treatment for 6–12 months.

Take any prescribed TB medications exactly as directed. Be sure to complete the entire course, even if you feel fine. Skipping or missing a dose can result in the infection becoming resistant to the medication, making it much harder to treat.

Get the answers to some of the most common questions about TB.

How long does it take to cure tuberculosis?

TB is curable, but treatment takes time. That’s because TB germs take a long time to clear the body.

Treatment for latent TB may take up to 9 months to complete. Treatment for active TB can take up to 12 months to fully clear the infection.

You need to take medications exactly as prescribed for months at a time, even if you start to feel better quickly. This helps your body clear the infection entirely from your body and prevents it from becoming resistant to treatment.

Can I survive tuberculosis without treatment?

Not everyone who develops TB feels sick. However, without the correct treatment, TB can become life threatening for up to two-thirds of people who develop the infection.

Even if you have latent TB, getting treated can prevent it from progressing to active TB and posing serious risks to your health.

Can you get tuberculosis a second time?

It is possible to develop TB more than once. Even if you’ve been cured of TB, you can contract the bacteria again.

Researchers are unclear whether a recurring infection is a relapse of the original TB bacteria or reinfection with a new strain.

If you think you’ve developed a case of recurring TB, contact a doctor to discuss next steps.

For some, TB can be a serious, potentially life threatening bacterial infection. However, TB is also treatable. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can cure a TB infection.

Talk with a doctor right away if you suspect you may have been exposed to TB. Taking action can help prevent an exposure from developing into active TB and protect your health.