Early signs and symptoms of tuberculosis in children such as loss of weight, low energy levels, poor appetite, fever, constant cough, phlegm in throat and night sweats are likely to be misinterpreted, as they resemble the symptoms of common cough and cold or other common illnesses. Tuberculosis is commonly known as TB and it is a contagious disease. The bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis usually attack and infect the lungs first and then they spread to other organs of the body. When an untreated TB patient coughs or sneezes, these bacteria are thrown out in the air and if a healthy person inhales these bacteria along with the contaminated air, he is likely to develop TB.
Tuberculosis was one of the most dreadful diseases of the 19th century, however, improved standard of living, new medicines and developed medical facilities have helped to remove the fear about tuberculosis from the minds of people. But, scientists in all parts of the world are shocked to see the statistics showing the recent global resurgence of tuberculosis in both developing and developed countries. Increased incidents of TB are again being noticed in the U.S., especially among juvenile prisoners, homeless children and children with HIV infection. In the previous century, bacteria called Mycobacterium bovis, used to cause TB in children, as these bacteria used to enter into children's bodies through unpasteurized milk. This cause is completely ruled out because these days, pasteurization kills the bacteria in milk.
HIV infection, alcohol abuse and excessive smoking leading to weak immune system, overcrowding and immigration, nutritional deficiencies (wrong diet and bad eating habits) are considered as the main causes of tuberculosis in children in the modern world. TB in children often suggests recent transmission from an infectious adult; which in turn can prove to be a cause of concern for doctors and common people as well. Knowing the symptoms of tuberculosis disease in children is therefore very essential.
Primary pulmonary tuberculosis generally does not exhibit any symptoms. Even X-rays may not show any sign of infection in early stages. Sometimes, coughing and enlargement of lymph nodes is seen. Generally, children with strong immune system are capable of fighting primary infection. The infection gets resolved on its own over a 6 to 10 weeks period. If this does not happen, the infection spreads in the lungs and also in other organs. This condition is called progressive tuberculosis. Bacteria causing tuberculosis may stay dormant in the human body for several years and then they can become active when conditions become favorable (for example, a lowered immunity). Then the signs of the disease are seen. Symptoms are usually seen when the disease is in the advanced stage.
Initially, dry cough which does not respond to any medications is seen. Bloody mucous in the sputum is a sign of tuberculosis and the patient should immediately undergo the tests suggested by the doctor. Infection in lungs results in shortness of breath and chest pain. Stage and severity of the disease influence symptoms of TB. The nature of symptoms is determined by number of organs infected and severity of the infection in those organs. Constant fever, chills, night sweats, sudden weight loss, lack of appetite, fatigue and increased weakness are some of the common symptoms of tuberculosis in children. Infected lymph nodes may result in swelling and pain in the glands in the neck. Similarly, infected kidneys may result in abdominal pain and/or blood in urine. Infection in spine may lead to severe back pain. Children with HIV infection may experience severe symptoms.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Tuberculin skin test, chest X-rays, and tests of sputum samples help in the diagnosis of TB. Children with a positive tuberculin skin test, showing no signs of tuberculosis are advised to take proper medications. Antibiotics play a major role in the treatment of TB in children. Prompt and proper use of antibiotics ensures complete cure for tuberculosis. Dosage of antibiotics are adjusted according to the requirement. Depending upon the age and overall health of the child, medicines are given to the child for 6-9 months. Children with HIV may develop drug resistant TB infection. They might have to take different medicines for about 18-24 months.
Parents should know that BCG immunization of babies soon after birth up to 2 years of age helps prevent TB meningitis. In case of children, early detection of tuberculosis symptoms helps shorten the length of the treatment.