How is TB treated?
On this page, we explain how TB is typically treated.
- How is TB treated?
- What are the side effects of TB medication?
- How long does TB treatment last?
- When can I return to work?
Active TB can be completely cured if you take a course of antibiotics against TB for at least six months.
Very occasionally, the TB bacteria may be resistant to one or more of the usual antibiotics so you might have different treatment or treatment for longer. Before starting treatment, your TB specialist should check your risk of having multi-drug resistant TB (MDRTB). For example, a history of previous incomplete TB treatment or contact with a known case of multi-drug resistant TB.
At the beginning of your treatment, you’ll need to take lots of tablets – make sure you know how to take them correctly. For the first two months of treatment you will need to take four different antibiotics, some of which can be combined into one tablet or capsule. It’s important not to miss any of your tablets. You may be offered support to take your medication either directly from the clinic, or in your home or community by outreach workers.
If you have latent TB, you may be offered a shorter course of treatment with fewer tablets. This aims to reduce your risk of developing active TB in the future. Your specialist nurses and doctors will discuss the benefits with you.
Your care will be co-ordinated through the local multidisciplinary TB team. This will include a TB specialist nurse and a key worker, who will support you in completing the treatment successfully.
Treatment for TB in the UK is free for everyone, regardless of immigration status.
- It’s best to take your TB tablets all in one go.
- Try not to miss taking your tablets. If you do forget them in the morning, take them later in the day.
- Don’t run out of tablets. Always get a new supply before they are finished.
- If you have any concerns about your medication, always discuss them with your TB specialist team.
TB can be cured completely but only if you take your tablets regularly and keep taking them for the whole course. Don’t stop just because you are feeling well again. Only stop when your TB team or doctor tells you it is safe to do so. TB can become resistant to treatment if you stop taking your drugs too soon or do not take them regularly.
Help to stop smoking
If you smoke, stopping will help the drugs cure TB. The NHS offers a free stop smoking service – your GP can refer you. Find out more at blf.org.uk/smoking.
What are the side effects of TB medication?
TB medication does not usually cause serious problems.
One of the medications commonly used to treat TB, called rifampicin:
- will give any bodily fluids including your urine and tears an orange-red colour – this happens to everyone who takes it
- might permanently discolour soft contact lenses
- will make the oral contraceptive pill less effective. If you’re taking the pill, ask your doctor about other methods of contraception while you have TB treatment
Another drug called ethambutol can, very rarely, affect your eyes causing blurring or the way you see colour - difficulty in telling the difference between red and green. If you notice these symptoms, stop taking ethambutol and tell your TB specialist team or your doctor, nurse or pharmacist. Your GP or the specialist TB team should test your sight at the beginning during treatment, to have a baseline understanding of your vision.
An important possible side effect with some of TB medication is inflammation of the liver. You should tell your doctor, nurse or pharmacist immediately if you start vomiting, have abdominal pain or develop yellowness around your eyes or skin. This could be a sign of jaundice.
All TB medication can cause a skin rash. If you have any concerns about your medication, always discuss them with your specialist.
How long does treatment for TB last?
You’ll have to visit the clinic until your 6 months of treatment are finished - and sometimes a little longer.
At the beginning of your treatment, you may need to visit the clinic every two to four weeks to make sure:
- you are getting better
- you have no side effects from your treatment
- you are on the correct tablets and doses
- you are taking your treatment regularly
- you have your blood taken to check your liver function
Once it’s clear you’re on the correct treatment and are improving, you’ll need to go to the clinic less often.
If you have active TB in the lung, your specialist doctors and nurses will tell you when you are considered not infectious and can return to work. In the UK some organisations require an assessment by occupational health teams or local health protection teams to decide if the people you work with need to be tested for latent or active TB. This is all done in strict confidence.
If you do not have infectious TB, you can return to work as soon as you feel well enough.