Tuberculosis Information for International Travelers

What is tuberculosis (TB)?
Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by germs that are spread from person to person through the air. TB usually affects the lungs, but it can also affect other parts of the body, such as the brain, the kidneys, or the spine. In most cases TB is treatable and curable; however, persons with TB can die if they do not get proper treatment.

How is TB spread?
TB germs are put into the air when a person with TB disease of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings. These germs can float in the air for several hours, depending on the environment. Persons who breathe in the air containing these TB germs can become infected.

TB is not spread by:

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

What is the risk of acquiring TB on an airplane?
The risk of acquiring any type of TB depends on several factors, such as extent of disease in the patient with TB, duration of exposure, and ventilation. Most important, there must be someone with infectious TB disease on the same flight to present any risk. If someone on the flight does have TB disease, persons on flights lasting 8 hours or longer are at greater risk than persons on shorter flights.

How can TB be prevented?
Travelers should avoid close contact or prolonged time with known TB patients in crowded, enclosed environments (for example, clinics, hospitals, prisons, or homeless shelters). Travelers who will be working in clinics, hospitals, or other health care settings where TB patients are likely to be encountered should consult infection control or occupational health experts. They should ask about administrative and environmental procedures for preventing exposure to TB. Once those procedures are implemented, additional measures could include using personal respiratory protective devices.

What should I do before traveling internationally?
Travelers who anticipate possible prolonged exposure to persons with TB (for example, those who expect to come in contact routinely with clinic, hospital, prison, or homeless shelter populations) should have a tuberculin skin test (TST) before leaving the United States. If the test reaction is negative, they should have a repeat test 8 to 10 weeks after returning to the United States. Additionally, annual testing may be recommended for those who anticipate repeated or prolonged exposure or an extended stay over a period of years. Because persons with HIV infection are more likely to have an impaired response to TST. Travelers who are HIV positive should tell their physicians about their HIV infection status.

What should I do if I think I have been exposed to someone with TB disease?
If you think you have been exposed to someone with TB disease, you should contact your health care provider or local health department about getting a TB skin test or a special TB blood test. Tell the doctor or nurse when you spent time with this person.

What are the symptoms of TB disease?
The general symptoms of TB disease include feelings of sickness or weakness, weight loss, fever, and night sweats. The symptoms of TB disease of the lungs also include coughing, chest pain, and the coughing up of blood. Symptoms of TB disease in other parts of the body depend on the area affected. If you have these symptoms, you should contact your health care provider or local health department.

You may have a Tuberculin Skin Test at the Student Health Center during our regular office hours on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.

Where can I find other health information about my travel destination?
The CDC online provides a list of health information for travelers by destination.

Adapted from the CDC website, updated March 2010

Jul 9, 2013
Student Health Services at Radford University