Tuberculosis, sometimes abbreviated as TB, is an infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease primarily affects the lungs but can spread to many other body parts. Before the development of antibiotics to treat TB in the 1940s, it was the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Some strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis have developed drug resistance, which can make treatment of the disease difficult. If left untreated, TB can cause severe effects on health.
Lung Damage and Death
If a TB infection is not diagnosed and treated, the infection can be fatal, explains the Mayo Clinic. The bacteria severely damages the lungs, which causes severe coughing that may produce blood, wheezing, chest pain and difficulty breathing. The infection may also cause fever, fatigue and unintentional weight loss. If the infection is not treated, if the bacteria is drug-resistant or if the infected person has a weakened immune system from another disease or condition, the damage to the lungs can become so severe that the person cannot breath properly, which can lead to death.
If the TB infection spreads to the brain, it can cause meningitis. The infection in the brain can have several serious effects, including fever, loss of appetite, listlessness and periods of lost consciousness. In addition, a patient with TB meningitis may suffer from severe nausea and vomiting, severe headache, neck stiffness and light sensitivity. Left untreated, TB meningitis can lead to frequent seizures, muscle paralysis, impaired mental function and abnormal behavior.
In rare cases, a TB infection may spread to the joints, causing TB arthritis. The most commonly infected joints include the wrists, ankles, knees, hips and spine. When the bacteria does spread to a joint, typically only one joint is infected. The affected joint often suffers from stiffness, swelling, tenderness and a decreased range of motion. TB arthritis may also cause a fever and excessive sweating, particularly during the night. The muscles around the joint may experience spasms and may atrophy over time. If the infection is in the spine, the parts of body below the infection may feel tingling, numbness or weakness.
Another rare type of TB is miliary TB, in which the infection spreads throughout the body. The name miliary arose because the millions of infected spots throughout the body are roughly the same size as millet--small, round seeds often found in bird food. This type of infection usually only occurs in people with an already weakened immune system, such as HIV patients. The bacteria spreads through the bloodstream and lymph system to infect all parts of the body, causing symptoms of general ill feeling, fever, chills, weight loss, weakness, difficulty breathing and anemia.