A nationwide shortage of Tuberculosis tests has health officials around New Jersey sounding the alarm. Are there alternatives? Should we be worried?

Alex E. Proimos, Flickr

Experts are not expressing concern just yet.

While TB is common in other countries, in the U.S., there's still about 13,000 cases reported each year. High risk groups include the young, those who smoke and drink, those with weakened immune systems and people who work in the medical field.

The following information was provided to Townsquare Media from the Ocean County Health Department:

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The infection most often affects the lungs but may involve any organ. TB is spread from person to person, usually through the air, when a person with active disease coughs and sprays the bacteria into the air.

Not everyone who inhales the germ develops active TB disease.

In most tuberculosis infections, the body's natural defenses are able to control the infection. Only about 10 percent of those infected will develop active disease in their lifetimes. Instead, the bacteria persist as a latent TB infection, which cannot be spread to other people. Active disease can occur in an infected person when the body's resistance is low or if a large or prolonged exposure to the germs overcomes the body's natural defenses.

The body's response to active TB infection produces inflammation that can damage the lungs. The damage can be extensive even if the symptoms are minimal.

In the United States, TB is much less common than it used to be. Of the some 13,000 new cases of active disease each year in the United States, over half occur in persons born outside of the country.

Tuberculosis is very common in the developing world. It has been estimated that as much as a third of the world's population is infected with M. tuberculosis, and worldwide about 1.6 million people die of TB every year. TB and HIV are closely associated; people with HIV are much more likely to develop active disease if they are infected with the bacteria that cause TB.

Since the introduction of effective antibiotics, tuberculosis management has changed dramatically. Most important, people with tuberculosis are no longer sent to specialized sanitariums; now, they are treated in general hospitals and clinics. Also, doctors now know that they can reliably prevent active disease among people with latent infections. However, misuse of drugs has led to the development of drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is harder to cure. If antibiotics don't work, TB can be deadly.

Dr. Norman Edelman, M.D., is a consultant for the American Lung Association.

He says "even if the TST (skin test) is out, there is a blood test that can do the same thing."

Right now, many health departments are conserving what few tests they have left. They will test the high risk groups and anyone with symptoms who suspect they have it.

Symptoms usually include a cough, wheezing, chronic congestion, fatigue and even bloody coughs. Dr. Edelman says sometimes, there are no symptoms at all.