Tuberculosis (TB) is the world’s leading infectious killer. It’s also the number one cause of death among HIV-positive people. In 2015, over 10 million people across the globe had TB disease. Of these, about one million also lived with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).
If you’re wondering why these two infections often go together, and what you can do to stay free of TB if you’re HIV-positive, read on.
Why HIV increases your risk for TB
HIV is a virus that destroys those cells in your body that help to fight germs and infections. These are called CD4 cells. When you don’t manage your HIV properly, your body finds it hard to fight off the bacteria that cause TB.
If you’re healthy, your immune system is usually able to destroy TB bacteria before they make you sick. But if your immune system is struggling because of HIV, the TB bacteria can infect your body and stay there. The bacteria can either make you sick straight away or cause symptoms (e.g. coughing, chest pain, or coughing up blood) at a later stage.
Your risk of getting TB increases about three weeks after first becoming infected with HIV. If your HIV is not managed with antiretroviral treatment (ART) this risk can double by the end of your first year of HIV infection. If you’re HIV-positive, your risk of getting TB is around 27 times higher than people who don’t have HIV.
How TB hurts if you have HIV
If you do get TB, it can affect how fast HIV develops into AIDS (the final stages of HIV infection when your immune system is very weak). The TB infection speeds up the loss of your infection-fighting CD4 cells and ups your risk for other life-threatening infections.
While your body is focussed on fighting the TB bacteria, it takes the pressure off the HI virus, which means it can make new copies of itself faster.
How TB spreads
When you come into close contact with someone who has TB, you can easily become infected. When someone who is infected with TB coughs or speaks, the bacteria spreads through the air. If you’re nearby, you may breathe in the bacteria and become infected, too. The bacteria can lodge themselves in your lungs and begin to replicate. From here, they can move through your blood to other parts of your body, including your kidneys, bones and brain. When this happens, your life could be at risk.
Tips to prevent TB disease
If you have HIV, it’s important to take great care to prevent TB disease.
- Start ART as soon as possible. Visit a doctor or clinic without delay, as your risk for TB and other infections is high.
- Take your antiretroviral treatment as prescribed, for the rest of your life. This will help keep your immune system strong.
- Get tested for TB. This is easily done with a blood or sputum test at your doctor’s consultation rooms or clinic.
- Speak to your doctor about using an anti-TB drug. If it is prescribed, it’s important to complete the course.
If you do get TB, complete your course of antibiotics and regularly check in with your doctor to see if the medicine is working. If you don’t use your medicine exactly as prescribed, the TB bacteria may become stronger, and therefore harder to kill.