They are both primarily respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms, so how can you tell the difference between TB and COVID-19?

As we observe World TB Day (24 March) this month, we’re also coming to terms with how the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is impacting or country and the world.

It’s a lot to take in, but it’s important to acknowledge that tuberculosis (TB) is one of the world’s deadliest infectious killer. Every day, 4 000 people die and 30 000 new TB infections are diagnosed worldwide1. In South Africa, which is the eighth highest ranking TB-burden country, an estimated 300 000 people were newly infected with TB in 2018, of whom 74 000 were undetected and untreated2.

As of 23 March, the novel coronavirus strain, COVID-19, has resulted in 381 700 global and 402 South African new confirmed cases (no deaths in SA as yet). It has caused the death of 16 559 people across the world or 14% (with significant variation between countries) on average a day.3

How to tell the difference between TB and COVID-19

The medical technology company BD, which supplies the latest technologies to diagnose TB, multiple viruses and scores of other conditions, acknowledges that the new virus is causing unmatched social and economic shifts, and impacting people’s health and global public health in alarming and disruptive ways.

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The company recognises that it may be complex to distinguish between TB and COVID-19: both are primarily respiratory illnesses caused by airborne infection and are linked to fever, general malaise and cough.

There are, however, notable differences between them,4:

  • In most cases, the symptoms of COVID-19 usually appear quickly and disappear after about seven days. The signs are:
    • persistent cough
    • high fever
    • difficulty in breathing

Certain people (eg older than 65, with weak immune systems and/or with other existing chronic conditions) may take longer to recover, while the average global mortality rate has been 3.4% of infected people.

  • The symptoms of TB appear gradually over the course of several weeks and do not disappear unless treated. The common signs are:
    • Cough
    • Weight loss and loss of appetite
    • Night sweats and fever
    • Extreme tiredness.

“People who have existing respiratory conditions including TB and those who are immuno-compromised including people living with HIV are at increased risk of contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus,” says Ian Wakefield, the country manager of BD Africa.

“Affected TB patients also need all the support they can get to continue and complete their TB treatment, which takes a minimum of six months and is complex even in the absence of another infection such as COVID-19.”


  2. WHO TB country profile, South Africa 2019



While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.