Back to Whatcom County home page Whatcom County | Departments | Contacts |  Help |  Search
 Health Departmentheader image
  Health Home


Tuberculosis (TB) Control Program

Basic TB Facts

Tuberculosis (TB) disease is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis.  The bacteria usually attack the lungs, but TB bacteria can infect any part of the body including the kidney, spine, and brain.  If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal.  TB is almost always curable with antibiotics that are available in countries such as the United States.

How TB Spreads

TB is spread through the air from one person to another.  The TB bacteria are expelled into the air when a person with active TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings.  People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected.  However, TB is not very infectious; it’s much harder to catch than the common cold.

TB is NOT spread by

  • Shaking someone’s hand
  • Sharing food or drink
  • Touching bed linens or toilet seats
  • Sharing toothbrushes
  • Kissing

The Difference between Latent TB Infection and TB Disease

Not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick.  As a result, two TB-related conditions exist:  latent TB infection and active TB disease.

Latent TB Infection

Latent TB infection (LTBI) means the TB bacteria are sleeping or dormant in the body.  For most people who breathe in TB bacteria and become infected, the body is able to fight the bacteria to stop them from growing and the bacteria become dormant.

People with latent TB infection do not feel sick and do not have any symptoms.  The only sign of TB infection is a positive reaction to the tuberculin skin test or special TB blood test.  People with LTBI are not infectious and cannot spread TB bacteria to others.  However, if the TB bacteria become active in the body and start multiplying, the person will get sick with TB disease. 

Persons with LTBI are often advised to take antibiotics for several months in order to kill the sleeping bacteria and to prevent the development of active TB disease.

TB Disease

TB disease means the TB bacteria are active and the immune system can’t stop them from growing.  TB disease will make you sick.  People with TB disease may spread the bacteria to people they spend time with every day.

Ten percent of people in the U.S. with untreated LTBI will develop TB disease.  Some people develop TB disease soon after becoming infected (within weeks) before their immune system can fight the TB bacteria.  Others may get sick years later, when their immune system becomes weak for another reason.  For persons whose immune systems are weak, especially those with diabetes or HIV infection, the risk of developing TB disease is much higher than for persons with normal immune systems. 

Persons with active TB disease are treated with several antibiotics for at least 6-12 months.  It is vital that these medications be taken regularly and treatment completed.  Lengthy treatment is necessary as it is difficult to eradicate TB bacteria from the body.

The Difference between Latent TB Infection and TB Disease

A Person with Latent TB Infection

Person with TB Disease

  • Has no symptoms
  • Symptoms usually come on slowly over a period of weeks.  Symptoms may include:
    • A bad cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer
    • Pain in the chest
    • Coughing up blood or sputum
    • Weakness or fatigue
    • Weight loss
    • No appetite
    • Chills
    • Fever
    • Drenching night sweats
  • Does not feel sick
  • Usually feels sick
  • Cannot spread TB bacteria to others
  • May spread TB bacteria to others
  • Usually has a skin test or blood test result indicating TB infection
  • Usually has a skin test or blood test result indicating TB infection
  • Has a normal chest x-ray and a negative sputum smear
  • May have an abnormal chest x-ray, or positive sputum smear or culture
  • Usually advised to take treatment for latent TB infection to prevent active TB disease
  • Needs treatment to treat active TB disease

 Reasons to Test for TB Infection

  • People in health care related occupations
  • People entering group treatment programs
  • Recent immigrants
  • People with certain medical conditions
  • People with symptoms of TB disease
  • People in high risk group settings

TB skin tests for work or occupational reasons, students and volunteers (including foster care) contact:

  • Your healthcare provider
  • Whatcom Occupational Health 360-676-1693
  • Infusion Solutions 360-933-4892

The TB skin test needs to be read 48-72 hours after it is placed. For example, if the test was placed on Monday it would be read on Wednesday or Thursday.

Whatcom County TB Rate

About 2 million people a year die from TB world wide.  However, death from TB is rare in the United States.  Whatcom County reports 4-6 new cases each year.

The goal of the TB Control Program is to prevent tuberculosis (TB).  The TB program staff do the following to meet that goal:

  • Provide medical treatment for persons with TB disease
  • Identify persons who were exposed to TB, test them for infection, and treat them as needed to treat or prevent TB
  • Screen high risk individuals for TB infection
  • Provide preventive treatment to persons who are infected but not ill
  • Conduct surveillance of disease trends
  • Provide consultation to health care providers
  • Public education


Washington State TB Program
Center for Disease Control TB
World Health Organization - TB

Educational Materials for Patients

TB Patient Educational Materials
TB Get the Facts Pamphlet (English)
TB Get the Facts Pamphlet (Spanish)
Treatment of latent TB
TB Infection Pediatric Brochure
TB Educational Materials in Multiple Languages

Contact Information

Tuberculosis Program
1500 North State Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
Telephone: (360) 676-4593

Back to Top