Can you catch tuberculosis on an airplane? Answers to common TB questions

March 23, 2018 Swedish Blogger


  • TB is contagious and deadly. Can you get it on an airplane flight?
  • Tuberculosis (TB) kills 1.5 million people per year worldwide, and is still found in the U.S.
  • If you even THINK you have been exposed to TB, see an MD right away

You will not likely catch TB on an airplane flight, however . . .

People with tuberculosis (“TB”) can spread the germs to people they spend time with every day. That means that if you are on an airplane, even for an extended flight, it is unlikely you will catch TB because  (1) the air is circulated; and (2) your exposure is not daily for a period of days in an enclosed space. 

However, if you go to a three- or four-day conference, for example, and you are inside meeting rooms with people who are actively sick with TB, then you are at risk of contracting the disease. “If you think you’ve been exposed, then get tested,” says Beth Ann Kavanagh, the Director of Infection Prevention and Employee Health at Swedish. “You may have heard that sunlight (UV radiation) will often kill bacterial TB germs, but please get confirmation that you are TB-free if you’re even remotely worried about whether you have it. It’s an easy test!”

What is TB? 

Tuberculosis (“TB”) is one the world’s deadliest infectious diseases. It spreads through the air from one person to another when someone with TB of the lungs or throat coughs, speaks, or sneezes and another person nearby breathes the TB germs into their lungs. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). If left untreated, permanent lung disease and other life threatening-complications can arise.

On the other hand, though it seems counterintuitive, TB germs can live in your body without making you sick. This is called latent TB infection, which means you have only inactive germs that cannot be passed to anyone else. However, if these germs become active and multiply, you will become ill with TB, and you will become contagious. Active TB germs usually attack the lungs, but they can also affect other parts of the body such as the kidneys, brain, or spine. 

The symptoms of TB include severe coughing that lasts three weeks or longer, coughing up blood or phlegm, chest pain, weakness, weight loss, night sweats, and more.

How do hospitals prevent TB?

Because exposure to active TB germs in hospitals meets the days-on-end-in-closed-space criteria, employee health administrators are especially proactive in these settings. Kavanagh says, “The World Health Organization reports that globally, one and a half million people die yearly from tuberculosis. The United States has reduced the number of cases to its lowest point on record to 9,272 cases in 2016 (2.9 cases per 100,000 persons).  However, the goal to eliminate TB entirely by the end of the century will be difficult to achieve. For that reason, Swedish focuses heavily on prevention, and we do that through continuous screenings and education.”

At Swedish, TB exposure control is based in making sure employees know how to spot the symptoms of TB (coughing up blood, long lasting cough, chest pain, fever, chills, etc.) and take action, and how to avoid becoming infected by using good hygiene, especially if they are working around individuals who have been diagnosed with active TB.  

Annual screening and testing for employees and new hires

Kavanagh says, “At Swedish, all employees are screened to see if they have ever been infected with TB. Anyone who has been infected can be treated for latent TB, and any health care provider or employee who is working around someone in a high-risk category for contracting TB will be monitored more closely to ensure they have not contracted active TB.” The people at highest risk for contracting the active TB disease in the U.S. are people who are foreign-born and people who have immunocompromised conditions, meaning their immune system is not strong enough to resist diseases. One example of this is HIV.  

What’s the cause of rising drug-resistant TB?

Drug-resistant TB is one of the primary reasons that eradicating TB in the global populations is so difficult.  Kavanagh says, “Unlike antibiotics treatments for minor infections (like sinus infections), effective TB antibiotic therapy may last anywhere from three months to a full a year.” When the disease is not correctly treated, TB germs can become resistant to medications and develop into multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (“MDR TB”). This form of TB is more serious because the usual medications don't kill these particular germs. In many countries, there is no one to make sure the diseased person completes the full course of the therapy. Because they feel better, they often stop taking their antibiotics. Kavanagh adds, “In the United States, a public health professional watches the patient take the medication, and they make sure they complete the full course of the therapy to kill all the germs that need to be killed.” This process helps reduce the incidence of MDR TB.

For TB screening, come to Swedish or see your doctor

Swedish rigorously implements best practices and takes extra precautions to prevent the spread of infection in its hospitals and provides specialized care for patients with a broad range of infectious diseases. If you think you’ve been exposed to TB, the best and easiest thing to do is to get tested. Learn about this easy test, and find a Swedish location near you.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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