There are some "good" things about the disease of tuberculosis (TB). One is that it can be cured. Another is that TB is not spread by shaking hands, sharing dishes, or sharing clothing. Another is that people usually catch it only from others that they are with constantly—such as family, friends, or coworkers. The occasional cough or sneeze from a nearby stranger doesn't transmit TB.
Many people think TB is rare, like bubonic plague or smallpox. Yet TB still occurs worldwide, killing almost 2 million people a year! Most victims are young or elderly, and live in developing countries. Yet even in developed countries, TB is a killer. In the US, TB killed 650 people in 2005.
Caused by bacteria, most forms of TB can be treated with antibiotics. The antibiotics must be taken for weeks, however, before the victim completely recovers. Ignoring doctor's orders, some victims stop taking their antibiotics as soon as they start feeling better; they risk catching a stronger version of TB in the future.
TB usually attacks the lungs. Symptoms vary. But common symptoms include fatigue, lots of coughing, loss of appetite, chest pain, and spitting up blood. A simple skin test, followed if necessary by a chest x-ray, will determine if active TB exists. If so, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics.
More than a billion people have inactive TB. It becomes active and life-threatening only when a person's immune system weakens because of aging or a serious illness.