Tuberculosis: Effects on young children and how to prevent it

It's inevitable that your child will fall sick, but what are the warning signs to look out for that may suggest the symptoms are hiding more than just a simple cough and could possibly be tuberculosis?

When your little one starts coughing nonstop, you’ll probably take it as the first sign of a cold or the flu. You then brace yourself a week or so of caring for a cranky, sick kid.

But what if your child’s cough does not go away after two weeks and she doesn’t seem to be getting any better?

It may just possibly be tuberculosis (TB), which is an infection caused by a microorganism known as Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. What do you know about tuberculosis signs and symptoms in babies and kids? 

Tuberculosis signs and symptoms in babies and older kids: What you should know

TB usually affects the lungs but also can affect other organs such as lymph nodes, larynx (voice box), bones, intestines, and kidneys.

Recently in Singapore, some children were recalled to the National University of Singapore after a nurse was diagnosed with TB.

There was a mysterious outbreak of a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis in Ang Mo Kio. And also the latest case of 80 preschool children in Bukit Batok getting screened for TB after being in contact with a teacher who had contracted the disease.

So it is important that parents learn about tuberculosis signs and symptoms in babies and kids, as well as how to prevent your little ones from getting it.

theAsianParent spoke to Dr Ong Kian Chung, Respiratory Specialist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, for more insight about tuberculosis and its effect on young children.

Warning signs and symptoms of tuberculosis in babies and kids

Dr Ong: In adults, any cough persisting more than three weeks should be evaluated more carefully, as cough due to common cold or flu should not persist longer than 3 weeks.

Part of the evaluation for such cases of persistent cough lasting more than three weeks should include a chest X-ray.

Other symptoms suggestive of tuberculosis infection include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Tendency to sweat (especially at night)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lots of phlegm
  • Coughing out blood
  • Chest discomfort
  • Breathlessness
  • Poor appetite

 

tuberculosis signs and symptoms in babies

It is important to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze to avoid spreading germs

How tuberculosis is spread 

Dr Ong: Tuberculosis is transmitted from an infected person to another via respiratory droplets in the air when the infected person coughs.

The TB germs are found in the respiratory droplets suspended in the air which are then inhaled into the contact person’s lungs. From there the tuberculosis germs may multiply and cause disease.

Sometimes (not commonly), the tuberculosis germs in the lungs invade into the blood stream. Following this, the tuberculosis infection may affect other organs in the body.

It is imperative to diagnose a person with active tuberculosis infection early. This is so that proper treatment of the infection may be initiated in order to prevent or reduce the chance of transmission to others.

TB infection is also very treatable with proper medication. The earlier proper treatment commences, the less lung (or other organ) damage will be sustained by the individual. In other words, there is less chance of permanent scarring of the lungs (or damage to other affected organs).

tuberculosis signs and symptoms in babies

Young children below five years old are at greater risk of getting a TB infection

Effects of TB on young children

Dr Ong: Children smaller than five years old are especially prone to contracting tuberculosis infection because of their weaker immune system.

If small children contract tuberculosis, there is more chance of rapid progression and severe worsening of the infection in these young ones compared to adults.

The symptoms of tuberculosis are applicable to children. However, the symptoms may not be obvious to the children or to the parents.

Children with persistent, unremitting cough for two weeks, plus an objective weight loss, together with fatigue should be evaluated for tuberculosis. This is especially so if there is a history of contact with anyone with active tuberculosis infection.

What to do if diagnosed?

Once diagnosed with active TB infection, treatment should start without delay.

Normally if the treatment is taken well, the person is considered no longer infectious after two weeks.

In the meantime, infected persons should not go to work or school or travel while on the initial treatment for two weeks to prevent spreading the infection to others.

Members of the same family should also avoid close contact with the infected individual during this period.

tuberculosis signs and symptoms in babies

Avoid the spread of germs by wearing a surgical mask

Reducing the risk of contracting tuberculosis

Dr Ong: Generally in Singapore the risk of acquiring TB infection in the community from strangers and casual contacts is low. So there is no necessity for any special precautions.

In general, it is good to avoid being with large numbers of people in close quarters with inadequate ventilation for prolonged periods of time.

Individuals have a cough should also avoid mixing with others. They should wear surgical masks to avoid spreading infection to others, in addition to seeking treatment early for themselves.

More tips to prevent the spread of tuberculosis

To ensure that tuberculosis does not spread, the Ministry of Health has some advice for the general public:

1. If you have TB, it is important to complete your full course of medicine even if you no longer display any symptoms and may start to be feeling better

2. Stay at home during the first two weeks of your treatment

3. Cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and practice good hygiene

4. If you show any signs of TB, go for a check-up immediately

5. Adopt a healthy lifestyle to help keep your immune system healthy

If you or your loved one displays any of the TB symptoms, it is advised to seek immediate medical attention so as to get early treatment and to prevent the spread of the disease