Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by tiny germs called Mycobacterium tuberculosis that are invisible to the naked eye and usually find refuge in the lungs. It is a serious disease but one that can be cured.
Active TB can be highly contagious. When a person with pulmonary TB coughs or sneezes, fine droplets of sputum containing the TB germ are projected into the air and can stay there for hours, especially in enclosed spaces.
The TB germ can also be spread in the air through crying, shouting, laughing, talking or by simply breathing. You DO NOT get TB by shaking hands or touching someone.
Here is what can happen when others breathe in the droplets that contain the TB germ:
- Nothing will happen if a person spends only a short time in the same room with a person who is contagious with active TB.
- Active TB may develop and after a certain period of time a person becomes sick, coughs persistently and eventually becomes contagious. He or she will need medical treatment immediately.
- Or a person may get what is called “sleeping TB.” Sleeping TB quietly settles in the lungs where it can remain “asleep” throughout a person’s life without them ever knowing it. It does not make that person sick and the TB germ cannot be spread to others. A strong immune system creates a shell around the germs and prevents them from spreading. They are safely trapped in the lungs. But be aware! The disease can develop at any time especially during the first two years after being infected. If left untreated, about 1 in 10 persons with sleeping TB will develop active TB in their lifetime. That is why sleeping TB should be treated and eliminated from the body. But the treatment must be followed faithfully for it to work.
When left untreated active TB can be fatal. There has been one death specifically attributed to tuberculosis in Nunavik in recent years involving a person who died in 2017.