To prevent tuberculosis (TB), take precautions when spending time around people with TB disease. Treating a latent TB infection will prevent you from getting sick and spreading the disease to others.

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While tuberculosis (TB) is rare in the United States, it remains quite common in other parts of the world. Left untreated, TB can be fatal. But there are ways to prevent it and stop it from spreading. The key to preventing TB disease, the active form of the infection, is to treat latent TB.

If you’re planning on traveling, especially if you plan to work in the healthcare field or among high risk populations, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from TB.

This article will explore TB, how it spreads, its risk factors, and how to prevent it. It will also discuss vaccines and strategies to help you prevent infection.

TB is an airborne disease, which means it spreads like the flu and the common cold. When someone with active TB disease coughs, sneezes, or speaks, they release droplets into the air that contain TB bacteria, which can be inhaled by people nearby.

When you inhale TB bacteria, they can settle in your lungs and start to grow. But most people exposed to TB bacteria don’t develop an infection. Your immune system often fights off the bacteria before they take root.

TB can’t spread by:

  • kissing
  • sharing mouth devices, such as toothbrushes
  • touching toilet seats, bed linens, and pillows
  • sharing drinks and glasses
  • shaking hands
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Most people who contract a TB infection develop latent TB. In people with latent TB infection, the bacteria often lay dormant for years, not causing any symptoms. People with latent TB don’t become sick and can’t pass the infection on to others.

TB is most likely to spread among people who spend a lot of time together, especially in environments that aren’t well ventilated. You may be at increased risk if you have a family member or colleague with active TB disease.

The first step in preventing TB disease is to identify and treat latent TB infection. Latent TB infection occurs when you have TB bacteria in your body, but that bacteria is essentially inactive.

Without treatment, latent TB infections can develop into active TB disease.

But not everyone who has a latent TB infection will develop TB disease. Many people live their whole lives with TB bacteria in their bodies without ever developing TB disease. This is most likely in people with healthy immune systems that work to keep the bacteria from growing.

Treating latent TB infections

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends choosing one of the following treatment protocols:

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If your immune system becomes compromised, you can develop TB disease years after you were first infected.

The best way to prevent this is to receive a diagnosis and treatment for a latent TB infection as soon as possible.

To diagnose a latent TB infection, a doctor or other healthcare professional may order a skin test or blood test. If the test results are positive for TB, a doctor will recommend prompt treatment.

TB and HIV

People living with conditions that weaken their immune system, such as HIV, are particularly vulnerable to TB disease.

Doctors in some countries sometimes recommend preventive TB treatment for people living with HIV.

According to the WHO, this typically involves a regimen of the drugs rifapentine or isoniazid. These are the same medications used to treat TB disease, but they may be given at lower doses or for shorter durations.

What to watch for

When a latent TB infection develops into TB disease, it causes symptoms such as:

  • night sweats
  • a cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks in a row
  • unintentional weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • chills
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Certain factors can increase your risk that a latent TB infection will develop into active TB disease, these include:

  • having a weakened immune system due to cancer, HIV, or other conditions
  • living in overcrowded conditions
  • traveling to countries with high rates of TB
  • frequent close contact with someone that has active TB disease
  • working in healthcare settings that service high risk populations

There’s only one vaccine used for the prevention of TB. It’s called the bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine. It contains a live, weakened form of the bacteria that cases TB.

In many countries, BCG is part of the standard vaccine program for newborns. But it’s rarely used in the United States.

The BCG vaccine offers partial protection against severe forms of TB in infants and young children. But it doesn’t protect adolescents and adults from TB or prevent latent TB infections from progressing to active disease. It also doesn’t provide long-term protection, so booster doses are sometimes recommended for people at high risk of TB exposure.

People with compromised immune systems can’t take the BCG vaccine.

Recently, there have been several advances in TB vaccine development and research. For example, new experimental vaccines such as M72/AS01E have shown promise in clinical trials and may offer better protection than BCG. But more research is needed.

Here are some tips for preventing TB infection:

  • Avoid close contact with people who have active TB disease.
  • Wash your hands often and cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
  • Eat a nutritious diet and exercise regularly to keep your immune system strong.
  • If you work in a healthcare setting abroad, follow protocols for wearing protective gear such as masks and gowns.
  • If you have a latent TB infection, follow the entire treatment protocol.
  • If you’re traveling to a high risk area and you have a compromised immune system, talk with a doctor about preventive treatments.

TB prevention measures include avoiding close contact with people with active TB disease and treating latent TB infections.

TB spreads through the air when someone with an active infection talks, coughs, or speaks. Most people who are exposed to TB bacteria never develop TB disease. People with compromised immune systems, such as those living with HIV, are at higher risk of developing TB disease.