Tuberculosis (TB) in Children
What is tuberculosis?
Tuberculosis (TB) is a chronic infection caused by bacteria. It usually infects the
lungs, although other organs such as the kidneys, spine, or brain are sometimes involved.
TB is primarily spread through droplets breathed or coughed into the air.
There is a difference between being infected with the TB bacterium and having active
There are 3 important ways to describe the stages of TB. They are as follows:
Exposure. This occurs when a person has been in contact with, or exposed to, another person
who is thought to have or does have TB. The exposed person will have a negative skin
test, a normal chest X-ray, and no symptoms of the disease.
Latent TB infection. This occurs when a person has TB bacteria in his or her body, but does not have symptoms
of the disease. The infected person's immune system walls off the TB organisms and
they remain dormant throughout life in most people who are infected. This person would
have a positive skin test but a normal chest X-ray.
TB disease. This describes the person who has signs and symptoms of an active infection. This
person would have a positive skin test and a positive chest X-ray.
The main bacterium that causes TB is Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis). Many people infected with M. tuberculosis never develop active TB and remain in the latent TB stage. However, in people with
weak immune systems, including those with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or diabetes,
and those who are treated with medications that can weaken the immune system, such
as corticosteroids and chemotherapy, TB organisms can overcome the body's defenses,
multiply, and cause an active disease. Very young children are more likely than older
children and adults to have TB spread through their bloodstream and cause complications,
such as meningitis.
Who is at risk for developing TB?
TB affects all ages, races, income levels, and both genders. Those at higher risk
include the following:
People who live or work with others who have TB
People without access to good health care
People from other countries where TB is prevalent
People in group settings, such as nursing homes
People who abuse alcohol
People who use intravenous drugs
People with impaired immune systems
Health care workers who come in contact with high-risk populations
What are the symptoms of TB?
Different symptoms of TB are present depending on the age of the child affected. The
following are the most common symptoms of active TB:
Unintended weight loss
Sweating at night
The symptoms of TB may look like other lung conditions or medical problems. Always
consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.
What causes TB?
The TB bacterium is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes,
speaks, sings, or laughs. Repeated exposure to the germs is usually necessary before
a person will become infected. It is not likely to be spread through personal items,
such as clothing, bedding, a drinking glass, eating utensils, a handshake, a toilet,
or other items that a person with TB has touched. Good air flow is the most important
measure to prevent the spread of TB.
How is TB diagnosed?
TB is diagnosed with a TB skin test. In this test, a small amount of testing material
is injected into the top layer of the skin. If a certain size bump develops within
2 or 3 days, the test may be positive for TB infection. Additional tests to determine
if a child has TB disease include X-rays and sputum tests. There are also blood tests
called interferon-gamma release assays that can aid in diagnosis.
TB skin tests are suggested for those:
For skin testing in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:
If the child is thought to have been exposed in the last 5 years.
If the child has an X-ray that looks like TB.
If the child has any symptoms of TB.
If the child comes from a country where TB is prevalent.
Yearly skin testing:
Testing every 2 to 3 years:
Consider testing in children from ages 4 to 6 and 11 to 16:
If the child's parent has come from a high-risk country.
If the child has traveled to high-risk areas.
If the child lives in a densely-populated area.
What is the treatment for tuberculosis?
Treatment may include:
For latent TB in children ages 2 to 11. Usually a 6 to 12-month course of isoniazid
will be given to kill off the TB organisms in the body.
For active TB in children. Doctors may prescribe 3 to 4 medications at once including for
up to 6 months or more for the medication to be effective.
Patients usually begin to improve within a few weeks of the start of treatment. After 2
weeks of treatment with the correct medications, the patient is not usually contagious,
provided that treatment is carried through to the end, as prescribed by a doctor.