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When Older Adults Should Watch Out for Tuberculosis (TB)

What Causes Tuberculosis (TB) and How to Reduce Your of Developing It

Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) that most often affect the lungs. There are many types of tuberculosis, but the main two types are termed either ‘active’ or ‘latent’ TB. Active TB is when the disease is producing symptoms and can be transmitted to other people while latent disease is when the person is infected but the bacteria are not producing symptoms. The CDC estimates 11 million people in America are afflicted with some form of tuberculosis(TB), but aren’t aware of their condition.  Considering that TB is fatal when left untreated, how can this be? One reason is because TB isn't typically vaccinated in the US and the vaccine itself is rather limited. 

Only about 1 in 10 people hosting an infection will ever have that infection become active. Yet, for seniorsanyone with a weakened immune system, dormant infections can be a time bomb waiting to go off. Here are some common conditions that may increase your risk of TB:

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Diabetes has become one of the largest risk factors for TB. That’s because diabetes impairs our immune system, leaving anyone who may have a latent TB infection vulnerable to developing a full blown case of active TB. In many parts of the world, it's estimated that as many as one-third of TB cases are the result of diabetes. 

Arthritis Treatments  
Rheumatoid arthritis is occasionally treated with drugs that work by suppressing the immune system because inflammation associated with arthritis pain is an immune response. However, when prescribed to someone who is unknowingly suffering from dormant TB, these drugs set the stage for a future infection.

Cancer Treatments 
As with arthritis medication, cancer treatments often have a negative effect on the immune system. Chemotherapy is the most likely type of treatment to wear down the immune system. When undergoing chemo, the body is strained to produce enough white blood cells for defense. That means the body may become vulnerable to serious bacterial infections, including TB.

Reducing Your Risk of TB  
In many cases, it’s not possible to change your treatment for these conditions. That’s why for people with suppressed immune systems, it’s critical to have a screening for latent tuberculosis. Regular screenings can catch a relatively harmless latent infection before it becomes a serious health hazard. 

Active TB infections are highly contagious. That means anyone with a compromised immune system should be careful when traveling in areas where TB is more common. While TB can be found around the nation, it’s particularly prevalent in California, Texas, New York, and Florida. For anyone suffering from a condition that affects the immune system, TB can be a serious risk, but nothing that can’t be overcome with vigilance, caution, and awareness.

Senior adults who have support from caregivers who actively encourage them to manage their condition have a distinct advantage in the fight against TB. This is particularly true when it comes to reducing the risk of TB from diabetes.Seniors should also ensure that anyone who i  coming into the house and working directly with their aging parents should be tested for TB.


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