False-positive tuberculin skin tests: what is the absolute effect of BCG and non-tuberculous mycobacteria?

Int J Tuberc Lung Dis. 2006 Nov;10(11):1192-204.


Background: Despite certain drawbacks, the tuberculin skin test (TST) remains in widespread use. Important advantages of the TST are its low cost, simplicity and interpretation based on extensive published literature. However, TST specificity is reduced by bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccination and exposure to non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM).

Methods: To estimate TST specificity, we reviewed the published literature since 1966 regarding the effect of BCG vaccination and NTM infection on TST. Studies selected included healthy subjects with documented BCG vaccination status, including age at vaccination. Studies of NTM effect had used standardised NTM antigens in healthy subjects.

Results: In 24 studies involving 240,203 subjects BCG-vaccinated as infants, 20,406 (8.5%) had a TST of 10+ mm attributable to BCG, but only 56/5639 (1%) were TST-positive if tested > or =10 years after BCG. In 12 studies of 12,728 subjects vaccinated after their first birthday, 5314 (41.8%) had a false-positive TST of 10+ mm, and 191/898 (21.2%) after 10 years. Type of tuberculin test did not modify these results. In 18 studies involving 1,169,105 subjects, the absolute prevalence of false-positive TST from NTM cross-reactivity ranged from 0.1% to 2.3% in different regions.

Conclusions: The effect on TST of BCG received in infancy is minimal, especially > or =10 years after vaccination. BCG received after infancy produces more frequent, more persistent and larger TST reactions. NTM is not a clinically important cause of false-positive TST, except in populations with a high prevalence of NTM sensitisation and a very low prevalence of TB infection.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / therapeutic use*
  • BCG Vaccine / therapeutic use*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Humans
  • Mycobacterium Infections, Nontuberculous / diagnosis*
  • Mycobacterium Infections, Nontuberculous / microbiology
  • Mycobacterium Infections, Nontuberculous / prevention & control
  • Nontuberculous Mycobacteria / isolation & purification*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Tuberculin Test*
  • Tuberculosis / diagnosis*
  • Tuberculosis / microbiology
  • Tuberculosis / prevention & control


  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • BCG Vaccine