What is Pulmonary Tuberculosis?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 22 October 2019
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Pulmonary tuberculosis is a potentially serious lung disorder that is caused by a contagious bacterium. The condition is widespread in many parts of the world, especially in places with overpopulation, poor sanitation, and little access to quality health-care. Once a person is infected, he or she may not exhibit symptoms for several months or even years. When signs of the disease do arise, they can include chronic wet coughing, fever, and chest pain. Early diagnosis and treatment is important to prevent serious lung damage and possible complications in the liver or brain.

Several different strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis can cause infection. The bacteria becomes airborne when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and it can easily be inhaled by another person. In the lungs, the bacteria attaches to the interior lining and can lie dormant for a long period of time. In fact, most people never develop symptoms at all, as their immune systems are strong enough to fight off the pathogen. Very young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are at the highest risk of developing active pulmonary tuberculosis.


The first symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis usually include minor breathing difficulties, occasional coughing and wheezing, and chest pain. Symptoms tend to worsen over the course of weeks or months until they become constant, debilitating problems. A person may start coughing up blood, experience fever and chills, and feel fatigued all of the time. Weight loss, lymph node swelling in the neck, and fluid retention can also occur. Without treatment, bacteria can spread from the lungs and lymph nodes to other vital organs and cause very severe illness.

A doctor can usually diagnose pulmonary tuberculosis by asking about symptoms and taking diagnostic imaging scans of the chest. On x-rays and computerized tomography scans, patches of the lungs typically appear inflamed, scarred, and discolored. A phlegm sample may also be collected and analyzed in a laboratory to confirm the diagnosis. Occasionally, a sample of lung tissue may need to be collected to rule out cancer.

Most cases of active pulmonary tuberculosis can be cured with a course of several antibiotic medications. Doctors commonly prescribe pyrazinamide, rifampin, and two or three other drugs to take daily for at least six months. It is important for patients to continue to take their medications for the full course, even if their symptoms improve quickly, to ensure that bacteria are fully eradicated. Frequent medical checkups during and after treatment can confirm that problems are resolved.


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