Taking medicines to treat tuberculosis

Tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious bacterial infection that involves the lungs but may spread to other organs.

You may have a TB infection but no active disease or symptoms. This means the TB bacteria remains inactive (dormant) in a small area of your lungs. This type of infection may be present for years and is called latent TB.

  • People with latent TB infection cannot spread the TB germs to other people.
  • However, in some people, the bacteria can become active. If this happens, you may become sick or you may then pass on the TB germs to somebody else.
  • Even though you do not feel sick at all, you will need to take medicines for TB for 6 - 9 months. This is the only way to make sure all of the TB bacteria in your body are killed.

When you have active TB, you may feel sick or have a cough, lose weight, feel tired, or have a fever or night sweats.

  • In this case, you can pass the TB germ to other people around you. People with whom you live or work, or with whom you come in close contact, are most likely to become infected with TB.
  • You will need to take medicines for TB for at least 6 months to rid your body of the TB germ. You should begin to feel better within a month.
  • For the first 2 - 4 weeks after you start taking the medicines, you may need to stay home to avoid spreading TB to others. Ask your health care provider when it is okay to be around others.
  • Your health care provider is required by law to report your case to the local public health department.

Ask your health care provider whether others with whom you work or live should be tested for TB.

How to Take the Medicines

TB germs die very slowly. You will need to take several different pills at different times of the day for 6 months or longer. The only way to get rid of them is to take your TB medicines the way your health care provider has asked you to. This means taking all of your medicines every day.

If you do not take your TB medicines the right way or stop taking the medicines early:

  • Your TB infection may become worse.
  • Your infection may become more difficult to treat. The drugs you are taking may no longer work. This is called drug-resistant TB.
  • You may need to take other medicines with more side effects. Even these medicines may not cure your TB infection.
  • You may spread the infection to others.

If your health care provider is worried that you may not be taking all the medicines as directed, they may arrange to have someone meet with you every day or a few times a week to watch you take your TB drugs. This is called directly observed therapy.

Side Effects and Other Problems

Women who may be pregnant, who are pregnant, or who are breastfeeding should talk to their health care provider before taking these medicines. If you are using birth control pills, ask your health care provider if your TB medicines can make birth control pills not work as well.

Most people do not have very bad side effects from TB medicines. Problems to watch out for and tell your doctor about include:

  • Achy joints
  • Bruising or easy bleeding
  • Fever
  • Less or no appetite for food
  • Tingling or aches in your toes or fingers, or around your mouth
  • Upset stomach, nausea or vomiting, and stomach cramps or pain
  • Yellow skin or eyes

Call your doctor or other health care provider if you have:

  • Any of the side effects listed above
  • New symptoms of active TB, such as cough, fever or night sweats, shortness of breath, or pain in the chest

Alternate Names

Tuberculosis - medicines; DOT; Directly observed therapy; TB - medicines

Update Date: 1/13/2012

Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.


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