Tuberculosis, consumption, scrofula, Phthisis, the White Plague – TB has been with us for so long that it is known by many names and feared the world over.

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The disease can be traced back some 6,000 years, and at its height, was killing as many as one in four people in the UK.

Even as recently as 1913, barely a decade after Queen Victoria died, there were 36,500 deaths from TB in England and Wales.

Thankfully levels are now a lot lower – but not as low as you might think, and while the potentially fatal lung disease was almost wiped out in Britain in the 1970s, though there was a dramatic rise in cases in the last few years.

But what is Tuberculosis, how is it spread and how can you spot the symptoms?

1. It’s a bacterial infection

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infection caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and spreads from person to person via infection airborne droplets, released when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

2. It mainly damages the lungs

TB is most known as a condition that affects a sufferer’s lungs (as this bacteria is the most contagious), but there are also strains that affect any part of the body - glands, bones, and nervous system.


3. It has many symptoms

Again, the most known symptom is probably the persistent cough, bringing up phlegm and sometimes blood, but TB can bring a whole range of other horrible symptoms too: night sweating, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite and swellings in the neck.

4. It’s not as contagious as you think

That is not to say it’s not contagious, of course, but in most healthy people the immune system can kill the TB bacteria. Even if the immune system cannot kill the bacteria, it stops it spreading and means there are no symptoms – this is latent TB.

It becomes a problem when someone’s immune system can neither destroy nor minimise the bacteria, and ‘active TB’ will soon develop. Latent TB can become active up to years later if the person’s immune system becomes weaker through another illness.

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5. It’s usually cured if spotted early

If TB is diagnosed – usually through chest X-Rays and blood and skin tests – people are given a course of antibiotics which lasts up to six months.

6. It usually only affects certain people

Like most diseases, anyone can catch TB, but it normally it only troubles certain at-risk groups: people in prolonged contacts with sufferers (family and health workers), people living in crowded conditions, those with conditions that lead to weaker immune systems, the very young and elderly, and people in general ill-health.

If you’re worried or have any of the symptoms described above, see your GP as soon as possible.