TB: The cough that did not go away

As part of the Government Employees Medical Scheme’s (GEMS) ongoing effort to educate our members and future members on a range of healthcare topics, we would like to provide you with real life member stories.

This article explores tuberculosis (TB) and its treatment.

Tumi Makasa* of Johannesburg became worried about his health when he had a cough that would not go away and he began having night sweats and chest pains. He was also feeling tired all the time.

Makasa is a busy father of three who had recently been promoted in the department of Public works. He did not go to the doctor at first because he was so busy at work and had not been able to find the time. He also thought it was just an “ordinary cough” that would soon get better on its own.

Makasa, a GEMS member, read on the GEMS website that his cough could be a sign of tuberculosis, or TB as it is better known. After finding out about the dangers associated with TB, he became very worried that he could infect his family if he had the disease.

He scheduled an urgent appointment to see his doctor and is thankful that he did. He tested positive for TB and is now feeling much better since he started treatment six weeks ago.

“Before I started treatment, I was feeling so exhausted all the time and I could hardly do my work or play with my kids any more,” said Makasa. “Now I am feeling fit and healthy again. TB treatment has really given me my life back.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that TB kills more than 1.7-million people around the world each year. It is a common illness in South Africa and the leading natural cause of death. TB may be passed on from person to person through coughs, sneezes, and spitting.

Some people have the germ but never develop the active form of the illness. TB usually affects the lungs, making it difficult to breath and if it is left untreated it can cause permanent damage to the lungs and even go on to kill the sufferer.

The following could be signs that you have TB:

  • Coughing for longer than two weeks
  • Coughing up flecks of blood
  • Chest pains
  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Night sweats even when it is cold
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of weight

TB is treated with antibiotics which need to be taken as directed by a doctor or nurse for six months. Treatment should not be stopped because one is feeling better or does not like the drugs. TB has to be treated for the full six months, otherwise it will come back and you may develop a resistant strain that is even more difficult to treat.

After his experience, Makasa recommends that anyone who has any of the above symptoms should have themselves and their families checked for the illness by their doctor. After Makasa was diagnosed with TB, his doctor suggested that he also have his family checked for the illness. This is because he might have caught it from them or given it to them. It was a good thing that he did this, because his wife, Tobeka, was also found to have the illness and was able to begin treatment immediately.

Anyone can catch TB although some people are at greater risk of developing the disease. They include those individuals who:

  • Suffer from poor nutrition and a lack of food
  • Have illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and diabetes
  • Are in close contact with TB patients
  • Suffer from a lot of stress in their lives
  • Take excessive amounts of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Live in poorly ventilated, overcrowded rooms

TB can be cured and should be treated before it can do lasting damage to your health. Makasa is grateful that he and Tobeka were able to receive treatment in time and can now continue to live healthy and full lives, raising their three wonderful children. Tumi says that, from now on, if ever there is anything not quite right with his health, he will go straight to the doctor. “My family and my life are too important to me to take any risks.”

* The member’s name has been changed in order to protect his privacy.

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