Frequently asked questions

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What is tuberculosis?

What is tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Transmission of TB

How tuberculosis spreads?

Tuberculosis (TB) is spread from one person to other through the air. TB bacteria are released into the air when a person with TB disease of the lungs speaks, coughs, sneezes or sings. Other persons staying in the same room may get bacteria in their own lungs when they breathe in this air and may get infected. Family members living together with the sick persons are most likely to get infected.

Can I get infected if I clean the home of a patient who was hospitalized because of tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis (TB) is not spread by sharing dishes, drinks, food or clothes or touching surfaces. TB bacteria are released into the air when a person with TB disease of the lungs speaks, coughs, sneezes or sings. Other persons staying in the same indoor environment (e.g. same room or flat) may get bacteria in their lungs when they breathe in this air and get infected. After the sick person leaves the room, TB bacteria will remain in the room air for hours, especially in small places with poor ventilation. If the sick person has left the room many hours ago or the room has been ventilated, there is no risk of TB for the person cleaning the room.

Can I get infected when I shake hands or embrace a person with TB disease?

No.  Tuberculosis is not spread through touch or contact with skin. See above: How tuberculosis spreads?

Can I get infected if I have used the same means of public transportation together with someone who had TB disease of the lungs?

There is no risk of infection with tuberculosis (TB) during casual, short and single travel e.g. in a bus or train.  Risk is bigger if you travel repeatedly in the same bus or train with the person who has TB disease. If you are flying and someone on the same flight has TB disease, persons on flights lasting 8 hours or longer are at greater risk than persons on shorter flights. At greatest risk are those who sit close to (two rows in front and behind) the person with TB. The authorities in charge of infectious diseases can find out who these persons are and contact them.

Are all patients with TB disease infectious?

No. In practice only a person with tuberculosis (TB) disease of the lungs can spread it. The sick person infects others more easily if he/she has cavities in the lungs or if bacteria are detected in the sputum smear examination.

Does everyone who has been in contact with a patient with TB get infected?

No. Tuberculosis (TB) is not easily transmitted. Only one third of those who have had a close and prolonged contact with a person with infectious TB disease get infected. Family members who live together are at highest risk. Only part of infected persons will develop TB disease.

Is there a test for TB infection?

There is no single good test available to find out if a person has TB infection. Two tests are being used: skin test (the Mantoux Tuberculin Skin Test, TST) and blood-test (IGRA). The tests are used according to national recommendations.

Can TB infection be treated?

Yes. It is possible to treat TB infection with medication. In Finland, medication is given to those in contact of TB patients who are infected and are less than 16 years old. Medication can be offered also to some adults according to national recommendations.

TB disease

Is tuberculosis my own fault?

No. Regardless of race, gender, age, profession or social status, anyone who gets infected with TB bacteria can develop TB disease.

Do all the people who have been in contact with patient who has infectious TB disease get TB?

No. Only one in ten healthy adults infected with TB bacteria develops TB disease. About half of them get symptoms within two years of infection. The second half will develop TB disease sometime later in life.

Do children or young people get TB disease easier than adults?

Yes. Babies and young children have a weak immune system. If they are infected with TB bacteria they can get ill very quickly and the illness can be life threatening. Also young people, who are about 15-20 years old, have a higher risk of developing TB disease than adults.

How do diseases or medications that weaken the immune system affect the risk of developing TB disease?

Certain diseases or drug treatments can weaken the immune system. When a person’s immune system gets weak, the body cannot so well control TB bacteria. If bacteria multiplies in the body, TB disease can develop. For this reason the chance of developing TB disease is higher among such persons.

Why is it important to know if I have HIV infection?

Because HIV infection weakens the immune system, people with TB infection and HIV infection have a very high risk of developing TB disease in their lifetime.

Is TB disease in people infected with HIV similar to others?

People with HIV infection have more often TB in places other than the lungs compared to those who do not have HIV. If HIV infection has not been treated and the person has AIDS, TB disease can develop very rapidly. The disease can spread throughout the body and be very severe.

Are patients with TB disease tested for HIV?

A test for HIV is routinely taken from each TB patient.

How soon do symptoms of TB disease appear, after a person gets infected with TB bacteria?

This depends on the person’s age, his/her immunity system and among small children on vaccine protection. Children less than five years old who have not received BCG vaccination, can get sick rapidly (even one month after they get infected with TB bacteria).
Adults whose immune system is normal can get symptoms within 6 -12 months after infection with TB, but the delay can be decades long. TB bacteria can lie dormant (sleeping) in their body (latent TB infection) and the infection can develop to TB disease later when their immune system gets weakened because of ageing, diseases or medication.

Which part of the body does tuberculosis affect?

TB bacteria can cause inflammation in any organ, but it most often affects the lungs. Two thirds of TB cases are TB of the lungs.
The most common form of TB in other sites than lungs is TB of the lymph nodes. A person sick with TB may have at the same time both TB of the lungs and TB in sites other than the lungs.

What are the symptoms of tuberculosis?

General symptoms of TB disease are loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, heavy sweating at night, chills or fever. With children, TB may appear as poor growth and development.

Local symptoms of TB disease depend on which part of the body is affected. The most important symptom of TB of the lungs is cough that lasts over three weeks. Cough can turn chesty with time. The person can cough up yellow, brown or bloodstained sputum.

If a person has TB of the lymph nodes, the inflamed gland swells or increases in size. Usually the infected lymph node is in the neck, but it can also be in the armpits or in the groin. Usually such a lymph node does not cause pain and it feels firm. As the disease progresses the node can become fluctuant, red and tender. A lymph node which has become an abscess can burst and produce pus to the skin.

Treatment for TB disease

How is TB disease treated?

TB disease is always treated at first with a combination of four medicines. The basic TB drugs are rifampicin, isoniazid, pyrazinamide, and ethambutol.

The drug doses are prescribed according to the patient’s weight. TB medication must be taken regularly every day in an empty stomach. It is not always easy. That is why, in Finland, a qualified worker is present to support the patient when taking the medication. At the same time, the worker makes sure the patient swallows every dosage and observes possible adverse effects of medication. Every person who has contracted TB disease has the right for such observed treatment. If a patient interrupts treatment on his own or stops taking some medicine every now and then it can lead to development of a TB strain which is resistant to TB medication.

Treatment of ordinary TB which is sensitive to basic TB drugs lasts at least six months. The treatment can last longer if the disease is severe. In normal cases 4 drugs are used during the first two months then two drugs.

How much does treatment for TB disease cost?

Tuberculosis is a generally hazardous communicable disease. According to the communicable diseases act, treatment for TB and examinations for TB when TB is suspected are free-of-charge to the patient in Finland.

Is TB curable?

TB disease can be cured with modern TB medication when started early enough.
It is more difficult to treat drug resistant TB because of lack of effective drugs. Two out of three persons who have drug resistant TB are cured when they get a long two-year treatment for TB.

Can TB disease cause permanent damage in my body?

Most patients will be completely cured. If the start of the treatment has been delayed and TB has caused large damage for example in lungs, it is possible that the body will not recover totally. Sometimes it is necessary to make an operation to accomplish cure in severe TB disease.

Can I influence my recovery from TB myself?

Yes you can. Follow the instructions given by your doctor and nurse. Do your share to make directly observed treatment work.

Should I pay attention to nutrition during TB treatment?

Yes. It is important that you eat well so that your body gets energy. If you are undernourished and you have lost much weight, the dietician in the hospital can make you an individual meal plan.

When can I restart sports activities?

TB is associated with fatigue, which gradually disappears as the person gets better. At the beginning of the treatment it is necessary to rest. Walking daily at a slow pace is possible as soon as you feel strong enough to go out. Your doctor will give you more specific instructions on how to step up physical exercise.

Can I have sex while I am being treated for TB?

Yes you can. It is however important to remember, that at the beginning of the treatment, you may be so tired that sex does not interest you

May I get pregnant while I am being treated for TB?

It is advised to avoid getting pregnant while being treated for TB. TB medication affects also the fetus, and some of the medicines are not safe during pregnancy. A woman in fertile age who has TB disease should discuss with her doctor to find a suitable method for birth control during TB treatment. The effectiveness of contraceptive pills weakens due to TB medication and you cannot rely on them as a birth control method during the TB treatment.

How is drug resistant TB treated?

If the patient has multidrug-resistant (MDR) or extensively drug-resistant (XDR) – TB he/she is treated with a combination of five or six drugs. Treatment usually lasts for two years.

What is drug resistant TB?

Inappropriate or incorrect use of anti-TB drugs can cause drug resistance. This means that initially drug sensitive TB is treated with only one or two drugs or the treatment is too short or the treatment has been interrupted many times. Disease caused by resistant TB bacteria fails to respond to conventional, standard anti-TB drugs. Resistant tuberculosis may be transmitted in a similar way as drug sensitive TB.

Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, MDR-TB, is a form of TB caused by bacteria that do not respond to isoniazid and rifampicin, the two most powerful, first-line anti-TB drugs. Extensively drug-resistant TB, XDR-TB, is a form of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis that responds to even fewer available medicines, including the most effective second-line anti-TB drugs.

Multidrug-resistant TB is found all over the world. More than half of these cases are in reported in India, China and the former Soviet Union. In Finland there are under ten new drug resistant TB cases annually.


Is it possible to isolate a person against his or her will?

Yes, it is possible. According to Communicable Diseases Act, a decision for involuntary isolation can be done for two months at a time.

When is involuntary isolation used?

Involuntary isolation must be used for example when a patient is suffering from infectious TB disease and has repeatedly interrupted treatment.