tuberculosis in children
February 14, 2022

Tuberculosis in Children

What is tuberculosis in children?

Tuberculosis (TB) is an ongoing (chronic) infection caused by bacteria. It usually infects the lungs. But other organs such as the kidneys, spine, or brain may be affected. TB is most often spread through droplets breathed or coughed into the air. A child can be infected with the TB bacteria and not have active disease.

TB may be staged like this:

  • Exposed. This is when a child has been in contact with a person who has TB, but the child still has a negative TB skin or blood test, a normal chest X-ray, and no symptoms.

  • Latent TB infection.  This is when a child has TB bacteria in their body, but does not have symptoms. The infected child’s immune system causes the TB bacteria to be inactive. For most people who are infected, the TB will be latent for life. This child would have a positive TB skin or blood test but a normal chest X-ray and no TB symptoms. They can’t spread the infection to others.

  • TB disease.  This is when a child has signs and symptoms of an active infection. This child would have a positive or negative TB skin or blood test, and testing showing active TB disease in the lungs or another site in the body. They can spread the disease if the infection is in the lungs and it is untreated.

What causes TB in a child?

TB is caused by bacteria. It’s most often caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis). Many children infected with M. tuberculosis never develop active TB and remain in the latent TB stage.

TB bacteria is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks, sings, or laughs. A child usually does not become infected unless they have repeated contact with the bacteria. TB is not spread through personal items, such as clothing, bedding, cups, eating utensils, a toilet, or other items that a person with TB has touched.

Who is at risk of tuberculosis (TB)?

There are two different sorts of risk for TB:

  • risk of getting infected
  • risk of getting ill.

To get infected with TB bacteria, you would need to be in close contact with someone who has active TB. TB is rare in the UK, so the risk of getting infected is quite low. There are some countries where it’s more common, and the risk of infection is higher in these countries.

The risk of getting ill from TB infection depends on how well your immune system works. Babies, toddlers and young children are more at risk of getting ill from TB than healthy adults. This is probably because their immune systems are not fully developed.

What are the symptoms of tuberculosis (TB) in children?

Children with latent TB will have no symptoms.

In the early stage of active TB, children may also have no symptoms. Symptoms of active TB in children may include:

  • a cough that does not get better after 3 weeks
  • fever (high temperature) that cannot be explained by other causes
  • weight loss, or difficulty putting weight on
  • feeling generally unwell
  • night sweats.

Other symptoms may affect the parts of the body where the TB infection has spread. For example, a child with TB affecting the brain may have symptoms of meningitis.

How is tuberculosis (TB) treated in children?

TB is treated with a combination of antibiotics, to kill the TB bacteria. Your child will see specialist TB doctors and nurses.

If your child has active TB, they will need to take antibiotics for at least 6 months. It is very important to make sure they take the full course of antibiotics, even if they seem to get better. Stopping treatment early could allow the TB bacteria to come back.

If your child has latent TB, they will still need antibiotics, but they may take a lower dose for a shorter time.

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