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Published Date: 30-Nov-2008

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 disease.

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

  • Homeless people

  • 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

  • The elderly

  • 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:

  • In children:

    • Fever

    • Unintended weight loss

    • Poor growth

    • Sweating at night

    • Cough

    • Swollen glands

    • Chills

  • In adolescents:

    • Cough that lasts longer than 3 weeks

    • Productive cough

    • Pain in the chest

    • Blood in their sputum

    • Weakness and fatigue

    • Swollen glands

    • Unintended weight loss

    • Decrease in appetite

    • Fever

    • Chills or night sweats

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:

  • In high-risk categories.

  • Who live or work in close contact with people who are at high risk.

  • Who have never had a TB skin test.

For skin testing in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

Immediate testing:

  • 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:

  • For children with HIV.

  • For children who are in detention facilities.

Testing every 2 to 3 years:

  • For children who are exposed to high-risk people.

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:

  • Short-term hospitalization

  • Medications

  • 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.


Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Pierce-Smith, Daphne, RN, MSN, CCRC
Last Review Date: 09/02/2014
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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