The Most Dangerous Myths About Coronavirus, Debunked By Science

Photo: Diego Cuevas/NurPhoto/Getty Images.
As quickly as news reports about the coronavirus pandemic have spread, so too have chain texts, emails, and social media posts about supposed testing and prevention techniques. You've probably seen them yourself: surefire ways to determine if you have the disease, or simple tricks to avoid getting it. And while some of the advice is easy to spot as false and disregard, other suggestions sound plausible. It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
To keep you informed, we've gathered a list of all the coronavirus myths that are being passed around. Next time someone forwards you (and everyone else in their address book) one of these so-called tips, hit delete.
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Claim: Hydroxychloroquine can cure coronavirus
Fact: The anti-malaria drug may be beneficial, or not — we just aren't sure yet
Donald Trump has stated that hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that's used to treat lupus patients, has the potential to cure COVID-19. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, rejected Trump’s claims back in March. He said that the previous testing done “was not done in a controlled clinical trial. So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.” But Andrew Cuomo approved its use for many COVID-19 patients in late March.
Ultimately, experts are not really sure about its effectiveness yet. More testing needs to be done to determine whether this drug has benefits for treating coronavirus, and if so, whether those benefits outweigh the potential side effects too.
Claim: The "breath test" — trying to hold your breath for at least 10 seconds — can determine whether you have coronavirus
Fact: How long you can hold your breath is not related to whether or not you have COVID-19
This claim was circulated on Facebook and other social media as part of a long laundry list of supposed "facts" about coronavirus. "Taiwan experts provide a simple self-check that we can do every morning," the post reads. "Take a deep breath and hold your breath for more than 10 seconds. If you complete it successfully without coughing, without discomfort, stiffness or tightness, etc., it proves there is no Fibrosis in the lungs, basically indicates no infection. In critical time, please self-check every morning in an environment with clean air." To be clear: This is not true.
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You cannot confirm it with this breathing exercise, and it might even be dangerous, says the World Health Organization. Some people with COVID-19 may have no trouble holding their breath, so being able to do so shouldn’t be taken as proof that you’re healthy. And if you do have difficulty breathing, it’s imperative that you call your doctor ASAP.
The only way to know for sure if you have COVID-19 is to get a formal medical test — and even those aren't foolproof.
Claim: Gargling salt water can help prevent coronavirus
Fact: Gargling salt water may help with a sore throat, but not coronavirus
A viral image that was first being spread via text, then Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, claimed that gargling water mixed with salt or vinegar can prevent COVID-19 from reaching your lungs. But that's not the case. Gargling with salt water is a well-known way to soothe an achy throat. There's also some evidence that people who frequently gargle get colds less often than those who don't. But as of now, there's no indication that gargling does anything to prevent coronavirus.
And the explanation the image gave for how this trick works — that the virus "remains in the throat" for four days before infecting the lungs — is fishy as well.
“[Gargling] won’t stop [the virus] from getting into the lungs,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in an interview with The New York Times. “What it could do is decrease inflammation, which would make your throat less sore.”
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Claim: Anyone can get coronavirus testing
Fact: A doctor will determine if you need to be tested or not
While we're hoping that coronavirus tests become more available, as of now, they're not. And even once they are more widespread, according to FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD, that probably won't mean everyone who wants to get tested will. Healthcare providers will make that call.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Clinicians should use their judgment to determine if a patient has signs and symptoms compatible with COVID-19 and whether the patient should be tested.”
If you think you may have been exposed to or infected with COVID-19, the CDC advises calling your healthcare provider for advice.
Claim: You can get the coronavirus from mail and packages from China
Fact: Viruses won't live long on objects like letters and packages
The chances of contracting coronavirus from your mail are very slim, although it's theoretically possible, according to Darshan Shah, MD, founder and Medical Director at Next Health. "Mechanical, temperature, and humidity changes would likely kill the virus before it arrives at your doorstep," he previously told Refinery29. It's virtually impossible for the virus to survive when it's in transit.
"You will find in the literature that in a lab setting you can have the virus live up to a couple of hours, but in every day world scenarios what we're learning from our partners from around the globe is that typically, it's in the range of minutes," Oxiris Barbot, MD, the Commissioner of Health for New York City, further explained during a media availability with Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City.
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You may want to avoid ordering non-essential items through the mail right now — but that's more to lighten the burden you're placing on people like delivery drivers, not because the packages themselves could be carrying the virus.
Claim: Heat can kill the coronavirus
Fact: Heat can kill the virus — but only extreme heat
This one gets a little tricky. Heat can kill the disease. But that fact is often misconstrued. "Yes, but we're talking about extreme heat," explains Shannon Sovndal, MD, the EMS medical director in Boulder, Colorado. "Heat in your everyday normal life won't kill coronavirus."
Hospitals and medical facilities use that kind of heat — in the hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit — to clean their medical instruments to disinfect and kill viruses, says Dr. Sovndal. But things like taking a hot shower or bath, sipping hot tea, or just being in warm weather won't kill COVID-19.
Another misconception is that coronavirus will stall out when it's warmer out (a piece of misinformation that was even repeated by President Trump). This is the case with the regular flu, which thrives in cold, dry conditions such as winter weather, and tends to die out when it's hot and muggy. But it's too early to tell if that will be the case for coronavirus as well. What's more, since the disease is spreading in hotter climates including Singapore and Australia, there's reason to believe warmer weather won't be enough to stop it in its tracks.
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Claim: Face masks can protect you from the coronavirus
Fact: Face masks offer some protection
Face masks are generally used to prevent the spread of airborne viruses, which COVID-19 is not. Coronavirus spreads from person to person via respiratory droplets that are produced when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, according to the CDC
Surgical masks can be useful in theory, says Dr. Sovndal. "If someone were to sneeze, and there was a droplet, it could protect your face from that droplet," he explains. But, coronavirus may enter through other areas like your eyes — especially if you touch your face. They may act as a reminder to avoid doing that.
Wearing a face mask is a good way to protect other people, though. For example, you may be an asymptomatic carrier, and wearing a face mask could potentially prevent your infected respiratory droplets from reaching them. The CDC now recommends that everyone wear a mask in public, even those who appear to be healthy and unaffected.
Claim: Drinking water every 15 minutes prevents the coronavirus from entering your lungs
Fact: Drinking water won't stop you form getting sick
This little bit of misinformation is especially insidious — the chain text that's going around claims it's based on facts from Stanford University. Don't believe it. In a statement the university released to The Verge, a media relations specialist said: "A widely distributed email about COVID-19 that is attributed to a 'Stanford Hospital board member' contains inaccurate information. It did not come from Stanford Medicine."
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While staying hydrated can keep your body healthy, drinking water every 15 minutes does not prevent coronavirus. Loren Rauch, MD, a community ER doctor at Antelope Valley Hospital in Los Angeles with a master’s degree in epidemiology, called this claim "Totally bogus," in an interview with Mother Jones.
"You have other defense mechanisms in your trachea to prevent [getting a virus], that's why you have cilia and mucus," explains Dr. Sovndal. "They're trying to capture the virus to prevent you from having it."
Claim: Kids can't get the coronavirus
Fact: Kids can get COVID-19 — and they can definitely spread it around
"We've had reports that kids are less affected by the severity of [COVID-19]," says Dr. Sovndal. "But that doesn't mean kids aren't vectors. Kids are the greatest vectors because they put their hands in their mouth and they touch each other and they spread it around from family to family." (We'll save you the Google. A vector is something that can pass on an illness to others.)
Bottom line: Kids can absolutely get coronavirus, and they may even be the biggest source of spread because they're all over the place, and they tend to be handsy.
Claim: Cocaine can kill coronavirus
Fact: Cocaine will make you high, not healthy
It started, like so many things, on social media. In tweets and Facebook posts (many of which have since been deleted), people were reposting what appeared to be a screenshot from a breaking news TV story that was claiming, "Cocaine kills corona virus." The accompanying image showed a baggie of white powder cradled in someone's palm.
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Maybe it's not a huge surprise that people wanted to believe this one. After all, we're all cooped up inside. We're looking for something to take our minds off the stress of social distancing. Proof: Marijuana delivery sales are up, according to New York Magazine.
But health officials were quick to shoot this rumor down. "I couldn't conjure up a way that cocaine would kill coronavirus," Dr. Sovndal says. "That's false." France's health ministry even sent out a tweet rebutting these claims, saying, "No, cocaine does NOT protect against COVID-19. It is an addictive drug that causes serious side effects and is harmful to people’s health."
Step away from the drugs, people.
Claim: Vinegar can kill the coronavirus
Fact: Vinegar has a ton of uses, but preventing coronavirus isn't one of them
We know that vinegar — specifically white vinegar — does have some disinfectant properties, but we wouldn't recommend using it to try and kill coronavirus. Studies have shown that vinegar can kill bacteria, but COVID-19 is a virus. Vinegar also is not on the list of EPA-registered disinfectants that should be used for possible coronavirus contamination.
To properly clean surfaces, the CDC recommends washing with soap and water first, then rinsing, then following with an EPA-registered disinfectant, such as Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Lysol Brand Clean & Fresh Multi-Surface Cleaner.
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"I would not recommend using vinegar to treat the coronavirus," Dr. Sovndal says.
Claim: Pets can spread the coronavirus
Fact: New evidence may suggest that animals can contract the coronavirus.
A four-year-old tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, which is what causes COVID-19 in humans, in the beginning of April.
“Our cats were infected by a person caring for them who was asymptomatically infected with the virus,” the Bronx Zoo stated in their own press release, published by the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Appropriate preventive measures are now in place for all staff who are caring for them, and the other cats in our four WCS zoos [Central Park Zoo, New York Aquarium, Prospect Park Zoo, and the Queens Zoo], to prevent further exposure of any other of our zoo cats.”
“This case suggests that a zoo employee spread the virus to the tiger,” they said when addressing whether humans can spread the virus to animals. “Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19.”
There has also been one instance of a dog being infected in Hong Kong, but, the WHO's website reads, "there is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit COVID-19".
But can animals spread it to humans? The USDA states that “At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets or livestock, can spread COVID-19 infection to people.”
Claim: You can't get the coronavirus twice
Fact: So far, being infected more than once seems unlikely
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There have been reports of patients previously released from hospitals in mainland China who later tested positive for COVID-19 a second time, according to the Los Angeles Times. But health officials say that this is most likely due to errors in testing.
"Historically, as you experience an illness, you get an immunity. Your body is ready to fight that illness [again]," says. Dr. Sovndal. "[Getting it twice] would go against our normal defense mechanisms for viruses."
The likelihood of getting coronavirus, or any virus, for a second time is very low.
Claim: Masturbation will keep the virus at bay
Fact: Pleasuring yourself isn't a bad idea, but it won't prevent COVID-19
Listen, there's a lot of pressure right now to practice social distancing. Whatever keeps you indoors without losing your mind is a great thing, in our books. If that means masturbating once, twice, several times a day — we're all for it. (As long as you're not, like, chafing.)
That said, getting yourself off won't protect you from any viral infections, despite the rumors that have been circulating on social media. "There have been a couple of very small studies suggesting that chemicals related to the body’s immune system are impacted by sexual stimulation,” Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, previously told Health
But those studies are small, and they weren't looking specifically at coronavirus. “To my knowledge, no study says specifically that masturbation boosts the immune system in a way that prevents or helps fight off infection," Dr. Saltz continued.
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Still, if masturbating keeps you from going out in public or commingling with another possibly sick party, then who's to say it doesn't help prevent the spread of infection? It may also do wonders for your anxiety if you're stuck in quarantine.
Claim: Eating raw garlic can protect you from the coronavirus
Fact: Garlic has microbial properties, but it likely can't prevent infection
"It may protect you from vampires, but eating raw garlic will not prevent the coronavirus," Dr. Sovndal says. The WHO echoes this statement (not the vampire part, though), saying, "Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus."
In the end, what's going to keep you healthy are the basic steps our doctors have always told us — drink plenty of fluids, eat healthy foods, sleep, wash your hands, don't touch your face, and avoid contact with sick people.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
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