For many of us, the words “TB” and “tuberculosis” conjure up black-and-white images of sanatoriums and large, antiquated medical equipment. Or maybe we hear those words and think, “That can’t happen to us.”
But it does. One of our staff members recently caught up with an old friend of hers, a 30-something woman living in the U.S., and discovered she’d undergone treatment for latent TB. Being who we are, we couldn’t resist the opportunity for an interview!
When/how did you find out you had latent TB?
Two and a half years ago, I was registering to be an on-call chaplain. For that type of position, you have to have a yearly TB skin test, and mine came up positive. The test is a skin prick—if you’re positive, it reacts. I immediately felt something, and the pricked area swelled up like a bad spider bite.
What were the first thoughts you had?
I was freaking out a little, because TB has such a stigma attached to it. There’s a place in Seattle that is on the site of a former tuberculosis sanatorium—a friend of mine remembers standing outside, waving to her father in the window.
I think I might have contracted TB in the mission field. It’s fairly common for mission workers or hospital workers to have it. My sister has latent TB also, possibly from working in the inner cities.
What did you do first?
You’re required to report to your local health department if you have a positive skin test, so I did. They scheduled me for treatments.
What was the treatment process like?
I had to go to the health department twice a week to take 3 pills—they watch you take them. I only missed one treatment. It was a day that I had the stomach flu and a funeral, and the health department was calling me. They were very on top of things!
It was a 9-month course of treatment. The drugs make you feel lethargic, and they upset my stomach and gave me heartburn-like symptoms. I chose the twice weekly treatment because it was less inconvenient, and also, by the third day, I’d feel better, which was better than feeling bad every day for 9 months.
I could taste the pills for months afterward every time I drove by the health department. Pregnancy is a lot easier!
Were your friends or family concerned they might be infected?
My husband was concerned at first! Also, a relative of a friend with a son who has medical issues was very concerned about my husband being around her son, even though I’m not even symptomatic.
Another acquaintance of mine who also had latent TB began to have health problems and was concerned that my TB had activated hers, but it turned out she had other medical issues that were unrelated.
It was odd, people not understanding that people with latent TB are not contagious.
Did you have any specific concerns about TB and pregnancy?
You’re not supposed to get pregnant while on the drugs. But other than that, it hasn’t been a concern for me.
Do you ever worry you’ll develop active TB?
Taking the drugs made it less likely that I’ll get it. Night sweats, coughing—they tell you to watch out for those symptoms. I’m glad I did the treatment now, when I’m more physically capable, instead of having it be an issue at some later time when I’m not as healthy. But I don’t worry about it.
Is your life today affected by having latent TB?
No. I just keep my letter on hand stating that I’ve done the treatment so I can provide it when a convalescent center or someplace requires routine testing. I’m surprised at how TB is much more common than we think it is!
When a person has latent TB, it means that the body’s immune defenses hold the TB bacilli, preventing them from multiplying. However, any number of factors – age, cancer, steroids, to name a few – can suppress the immune system, allowing the bacilli to multiply, causing active TB disease. Treating latent TB reduces the chances of this happening by over 90%.
If you or anyone you know has been exposed to active TB disease (not latent TB), you should get tested for TB. To learn more and to help prevent the spread of TB, visit the World TB Day website.