Diagnosing active TB

If you suspect that you have active TB in your lungs, or have recently been in contact with someone with active TB in their lungs, you can refer yourself to a TB clinic for assessment. The organisations listed in sources of advice and support should be able to put you in touch with local services.

If you have suspected active TB, you should be assessed by your TB team within 5 working days. If you have confirmed active TB, you should be assessed the next working day.

Tests for TB in the lungs

If you have symptoms of active TB (see tuberculosis) in your lungs, you should be offered tests by a healthcare professional. These could include a chest X‑ray and tests on samples of sputum coughed up from the lungs. If the tests find any TB bacteria in your sputum, you are more likely to pass TB on to other people. This is called smear‑positive TB. If no bacteria are seen, but other tests show you have TB, this is called smear‑negative TB.

Tests for TB in other parts of the body

If you might have TB in another part of your body, other than your lungs, a doctor may need to check whether it contains TB bacteria. This may involve removing a small sample of tissue (called a biopsy) or using a needle to remove a few cells or fluid from the affected area. You should also have a chest X‑ray to find out whether it is in your lungs as well.

If you have TB that has spread to other parts of your body, a healthcare professional should offer you extra tests to see whether the TB is in your brain or spinal cord. This should include a test called a lumbar puncture (a small amount of the fluid around your spinal cord is removed through a needle). You may need a scan, such as a CT or MRI, as well. If you have TB in the spine and have signs that the nerves in the spinal cord are affected (such as weakness, numbness or tingling), you should be offered a scan to see whether you have TB inside your spinal cord.

While you are waiting for your results

You may need to start treatment before the test results come back.

Questions to ask about finding out whether you have TB

  • Why are you offering me these tests?

  • Can you tell me more about the tests you've offered me?

  • What do these tests involve?

  • Where will these be carried out? Will I need to have them in hospital?

  • How long will I have to wait until I have these tests?

  • How long will it take to get the results of these tests?

  • Why is it important for me to start treatment before I get my results?

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