Unjani Clinic


Exploring 1 of the world’s most deadly diseases

Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the world’s most deadly diseases, causing thousands of deaths every year across the globe. Worldwide, TB is the second greatest killer due to a single infectious agent – second only to HIV/AIDS. 1

TB is particularly common in South Africa, and despite being treatable, it is still a major cause of death in our country and beyond.

In this edusheet, we’ll explore what TB is, its causes, risk factors, symptoms, testing and treatment.


What is TB?

TB is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called the TB bacillus.1 The disease is spread through the air, usually when an infected person coughs or sneezes.2 While TB usually affects the lungs, it can also infect other parts of the body, including the brain, kidneys and spine.3

This kind of infection is easily transmitted in areas with poor ventilation (not enough fresh air), such as family homes, shared housing, workplaces and bars.2 In these types of environments, TB germs can stay in the air for many hours, infecting people who breathe the same air.3


Who is most at risk of catching TB?

Anyone can catch the disease; however, some people are more at risk than others. People who are very young or very old, as well as people with compromised immune systems (such as those living with HIV) are more likely to contract TB if exposed to someone who has it.2

What are the symptoms of TB?

In the early stages of infection, TB symptoms can be fairly mild, only worsening a few months after infection.2 In general, TB symptoms include:

A persistent cough


Coughing up phlegm and other mucous


Chest pains




Weight loss




Coughing up blood


Night sweats


What are the symptoms of TB?

There are various types of tests that can detect TB infection: skin tests and blood tests.

To perform the skin test, a small amount of fluid called tuberculin is injected into the skin of your lower arm. You will then have to return to the doctor or nurse within 48-72 hours, so they can assess the reaction of your skin to determine whether you have been infected.3

Blood tests can be more accurate, but take a bit longer, as the blood needs to be sent to a lab for testing. Blood tests measure your immune system’s reaction to the germs that cause TB.3

Sputum (spit / mucous) testing is another method often used in South Africa, and results are usually available after two or three days.4

Both testing and treatment is free at government clinics across the country.


What do I do if I test positive for TB?


TB is treated with TB medication, which has to be taken for 6-8 months. It is important to note that TB can only be cured if you complete the full treatment cycle – even if you start to feel better, you must continue with the treatment until your nurse or doctor tells you that you can stop. If you don’t complete your treatment course, you may develop an even more serious version of TB, which can result in serious health issues and even death.4

To give yourself the best chance at a healthy recovery, you should exercise, eat healthy food wherever possible, stop smoking and avoid drinking alcohol.4

Protecting others

If you have TB, you should do everything you can to protect those around you.

This includes:


Ensuring that there is good ventilation in your home and any space you may spend time in


Taking your TB medication as directed by your healthcare practitioner


Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze


Wearing a mask or a scarf around your mouth and nose when you leave your home


Washing your hands often