Coping with Tuberculosis



In China they call the disease the “terrible chest”. Doctors call it tuberculosis, or TB for short. By any name, it is a killer.

Tuberculosis is an infection, which means that a germ, in this case the TB germ, invades your body and makes you sick. The germ is too small to see with your eye, but even though it is small it is as powerful as a lightning bolt. That’s because it multiplies inside you and makes you ill.

Without treatment, tuberculosis can kill you. Usually we think of TB as a breathing disease, because we get the germs for TB by breathing them in. But TB isn’t that simple. For one thing, many people who breathe in the TB germs manage to fight them off. That means, the germs get in the lungs but the body isolates them so they can’t cause disease. They just sit there, as if they were asleep.

Unfortunately, TB germs don’t always just sit there. Many times they become active, and you get sick. This sickness is usually in the chest, because that’s how the TB germs got into your body in the first place. When TB becomes active in the lungs, it grows and you cough until you have trouble breathing. But TB can travel beyond your lungs and become active in other parts of your body, including the bone, or the kidneys and other organs. Wherever it occurs, the effect is the same. You run a chronic fever, you lose weight and you become weaker and weaker. Tuberculosis is a terrible problem, especially because it spreads so easily. It moves around through water droplets too small to see.

That means people who show symptoms of the disease spread the germ simply by coughing in the presence of other people. And as they get sicker, and have to cough and spit all the time, they spread the germ even more. And you catch it when you breathe in.

How do you know if someone has tuberculosis? Here are things to look for, although not everyone who has TB will have all the symptoms on the list:

  1. A cough that won’t go away, especially after waking, and sometimes what is coughed up has blood in it
  2. A mild fever in the afternoon and sweating at night
  3. No appetite for food
  4. Weight loss and weakness
  5. Pain in the chest or upper back that doesn’t go away
  6. Shortness of breath

There is a vaccination called “BCG” available against tuberculosis. Get your doctor’s advice about vaccination. It is important to have children vaccinated to protect them against tuberculosis.

Older people, and people with AIDS, are more likely to get sick if they carry the tuberculosis germ.

If someone in your house has active tuberculosis, there are several things you can do:

  1. Have the children vaccinated against TB.
  2. Make sure everyone, especially the children, eats nutritious food.
  3. If possible, have the whole family tested for TB.
  4. Arrange for the person with TB to eat and sleep separately from the children until the person with TB has no cough at all and is getting correct treatment. The person with TB should not prepare food or care for babies until free from infection.
  5. Alert a health worker so the sick person can start getting the right medicine.
  6. Make sure the person with TB covers their mouth when coughing and does not spit on the floor. Have the sick person spit into tissues, and then burn the tissues. You could also have them spit into a container of disinfectant.
  7. Take children to a health centre at the first sign of TB or if their cough lasts more than two weeks.

Remember that good food and fresh air are the best healers we have and can make people resistant to infection.

In China they have a saying about tuberculosis. They say, “Ten get it, nine die.” But do people with TB have to die? No. That is the good news. There are cures for TB. The trouble is, they are not simple cures. It takes several medicines working together over many months before people with tuberculosis feel better, and even then they are not cured. They must continue taking all of their medicine until the health worker says the TB is completely gone. If not, the TB will come back, but the medicine won’t work any more. Curing tuberculosis takes months.

Chances are you will be cured of tuberculosis if you do these things. Act quickly. Get in touch with the health worker as soon as you recognize the symptoms, and keep taking your medicine. If you keep taking it even when you start feeling better there’s a good chance you will be cured.

That means you won’t die of tuberculosis. And there is a wonderful bonus. When you had active TB, you couldn’t help spreading it when you coughed or even talked. When you are cured, you are no longer spreading it. That means, you are no longer a danger to your spouse, your children, your parents. You have not only acted to help yourself, you have acted to protect your family.

It is vital that we cure TB in everyone who has it, even people who are dying of another disease. Some people may question that. Why waste good medicine on people who are dying? Even if you are not hard hearted, you may wonder at precious medicine going to someone who can’t live long enough to enjoy a cure.

But there is an answer to that. Because even though these people are dying, they are still breathing, they are still coughing, they are still spitting. And every time they cough, and every time they spit, they are spreading the TB germ.

Curing them has two benefits. It eases their pain, so they may die a more peaceful death, which is only right and proper. And it protects you and me from exposure to more tuberculosis. It may someday be possible to wipe out TB entirely. In the meantime, we have to work toward that day. We can do that by acting quickly when we recognize the symptoms of TB the cough, the fever, the weight loss, and weakness and by taking the right medicine for as long as the health worker says, and by vaccinating children the day they are born, or as soon as possible.


  • This script was prepared by Katie Gillmor Ellis, Toronto, Canada.
  • Thank you to our medical advisors Dr. Elizabeth Hillman, Dr. Helen Gordon and Catherine Fergusson, R.N., for reviewing this script.

Information sources

  • “Communities can challenge tuberculosis”, World Neighbors in Action Newsletter, Volume 13, Number 4E, published by World Neighbors, International Headquarters, 5116 North Portland Avenue, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73112, U.S.A.
  • “TB: A global emergency” in World Health, No. 4, July August 1993, published by World Health Organization, CH 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland.
  • Where there is no doctor, (1992, 446 pages) by David Werner, published by the Hesperian Foundation, P.O. Box 1692, Palo Alto, California 94302, U.S.A.