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What a Diagnosis of Tuberculosis Means For the Elderly Patient

With World Tuberculosis Day coming up on March 24, it’s fitting to explore what a diagnosis of tuberculosis means for elderly hospice patients in Alameda County and elsewhere. Still an epidemic in much of the world today, tuberculosis causes the deaths of one-and-a-half million people annually, mostly in developing countries, says Stop TB Partnership.

History of World Tuberculosis Day

This day of recognition was first created to commemorate the day when Dr. Robert Koch of Berlin announced in 1882 that he had discovered the cause of tuberculosis (TB bacillus). This came at a time when TB was spreading quite rapidly throughout Europe and the Americas, leading to the unfortunate deaths of one out of every seven people. The doctor’s discovery helped immensely in the diagnosis and cure of TB globally. Even though it’s more common to see tuberculosis in developing countries, it still does affect people in this country, many of them elderly. The CDC points out that up to 13 million people in the U.S. suffer from tuberculosis.

This serious infectious disease affects the lungs, and the bacteria that causes TB spreads easily from person to person when someone sneezes or coughs. TB started to make a comeback in 1985 after becoming very rare in developed countries, due to the emergence of HIV. That’s because HIV weakens the immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight off TB germs. Stringent control programs implemented in the United States saw the decrease of tuberculosis in 1993. But it’s still a big concern, especially among senior citizens or those with compromised immune systems.

What are the Symptoms?

The symptoms you experience will depend on the type of TB you have:

  • Latent TB: While the person has a TB infection, the bacteria are inactive and pose no symptoms. This form isn’t contagious but has been known to develop into active TB.
  • Active TB: The person with active TB shows symptoms and can spread TB to others. This usually happens in the first few weeks after being infected with the TB bacteria, but it could also show up years later, says the Mayo Clinic.

Active TB symptoms include:

  • Coughing for a few weeks or more
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Problems with the spine (back pain), kidneys (blood in the urine), and brain (meningitis)

Why are the Elderly at Risk?

Senior citizens often have compromised immune systems, frequency of adverse drug reactions, underlying illnesses, and high rate of institutionalization. It’s important to note that just one in 10 people with TB will display active symptoms but for elderly patients who already have a weakened immune system, dormant infections can lie in wait, emerging at any time.

There are also some elderly conditions that increase this age group’s risk for TB, such as:

  • Diabetes: This is a big risk factor because it impairs the immune system. In fact, about one-third of TB cases globally are a result of diabetes. If you have diabetes, you are at triple the risk of getting active tuberculosis, according to Science Direct.
  • Arthritis Treatments: Rheumatoid arthritis can welcome future infections due to all the drugs the person takes that may suppress their immune system.
  • Cancer Treatments: Treatments like chemotherapy compromise the immune system, so much so that the body is unable to produce enough white blood cells to launch an adequate defense. This leaves the person vulnerable to serious bacterial infections like TB.

On top of all that, there are drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, as antibiotics can’t kill all of the bacteria. That surviving bacteria not only resist that particular drug but other antibiotics as well. The first TB antibiotics were developed 60 years ago, leaving TB germs able to survive even with potent medications thrown at them.

Senior Risk Factors

There are several diseases, conditions, and medications that can further compromise the immune system, such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Malnutrition
  • Very young or advanced age
  • Certain cancers
  • Severe kidney disease
  • Some drugs used to treat psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • Drugs to prevent rejection of transplanted organs
  • Cancer treatment (i.e., chemotherapy)

When TB is diagnosed early and treated properly and completely, elderly people can become noninfectious and eventually cured, says U.S. Pharmacist. However, because the symptoms of TB are so often either subtle or absent, diagnosis can be very difficult. When compared with younger people, the mortality rate of TB in the elderly is six times higher. An increased awareness of this disease is necessary to provide better medical and social support.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

Our compassionate, skilled hospice care givers do all they can to stop the spread of germs to reduce the transmission of any illness that may compromise their care. To learn more about what we do, contact us at 888-978-1306.