Why would the public believe such far-fetched and potentially dangerous advice as drinking colloidal silver or gargling with bleach to prevent coronavirus? “People need to manage the fear that comes from feeling like you don’t have control over something as fundamental as your physical health and safety,” said Christopher J. Bryan, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “If science is telling you the only thing you can do is wash your hands, that can feel unsatisfying, because it’s a thing we already do regularly, so it doesn’t feel like it has any special protective power,” he added. “So, in our desire to feel like we’re taking all possible action to protect ourselves in an emergency, it’s easy to see how we would become more open to plausible-sounding claims about unconventional things we can be doing that satisfy that need.”
And the Internet has the ability to distribute any health guidance, good or bad, with lightning speed.
“If I’ve learned anything in the past few days, it’s that the potential to spread information rapidly really exists through social media platforms,” said Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious diseases specialist at University Health Network and assistant professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, whose own, legitimate, counsel about how to handle the outbreak went viral. “But some people with little background in science or health care have anointed themselves as experts and give people advice. It’s very damaging and hasn’t helped at all.”
In his Facebook post, which has reached more than 1.3 million people, Sharkawy advised meeting the coronavirus challenge with compassion for others and “an unfailing effort to seek truth, facts and knowledge as opposed to conjecture, speculation and catastrophizing.”
In that vein, here’s a look at where some prominent coronavirus myths originated and what the facts really are.
Myth: Chlorine will kill coronavirus
A QAnon supporter has been advising his 120,000-plus Twitter followers to use a “miracle mineral supplement” containing the bleaching agent chlorine dioxide to “wipe out coronavirus.” Similar posts have advised people to use bleach in spray bottles for self-cleaning or gargling. It’s all terrible advice; bleach is meant for surfaces, not human bodies.
The Centers for Disease Control says that unexpired household bleach is an effective household cleaner for coronaviruses when properly diluted — which is four teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. You can safely use bleach to clean frequently touched surfaces, such as tables, doorknobs, light switches and faucets — but don’t spray it on your skin or inhale it. The WHO says spraying chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body and can be harmful to mucous membranes in your eyes and mouth.
Myth: Garlic soup will ward off coronavirus
There was a post circulating on Twitter and Facebook that advised people to make a soup by boiling eight cloves of garlic in water to “cure” the coronavirus. Facebook was quick to tag it with the statement “the primary claims in the information are factually inaccurate.”
Garlic certainly has health benefits and is being researched for its antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-tumor and antibacterial potential. In the antiviral research, most studies focus on HIV or the common cold, and the data cannot be extrapolated to the novel coronavirus. Because there’s a sliver of knowledge about garlic and viruses, it’s easy to embellish and take people for a ride. But according to the WHO, “there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.”
Myth: Nasal spray helps prevent coronavirus
This rumor seems more like a mix-up. An Australian company makes a nasal spray that it advertises as a disinfectant for your nose, capable of reducing the amount of detectable coronavirus by almost 100 percent. The fine print? The research was conducted before the virus that causes covid-19 and probably refers to coronavirus that causes the common cold.
There’s also a myth that sesame oil nasal spray can combat the virus. Although two small studies from 2000 and 2001 found that a nasal spray made from sesame oil can help keep nasal passages moist in dry winter climates, there’s no science linking sesame oil as a helpful aide for a runny nose, cough, cold, flu or coronavirus. Putting sesame oil on the body will not block the coronavirus.
The WHO says there’s no evidence that regularly rinsing the nose with saline has protected people from infection with the new coronavirus, either. According to the WHO website, “There is some limited evidence that regularly rinsing the nose with saline can help people recover more quickly from the common cold. However, regularly rinsing the nose has not been shown to prevent respiratory infections.”
Myth: Extreme temperatures kill coronavirus
President Trump suggested that the coronavirus outbreak will be gone by April because heat generally kills this kind of virus. Comforting thought, sure. Fact? Nope. A Twitter post that advised people to take hot baths and avoid ice cream was viewed by social media users globally and was falsely attributed to UNICEF. The nonprofit organization quickly set the record straight and told Twitter users it was a fake post. Other Internet myths say cold weather, a warm bath or hand dryers can kill the coronavirus. None of these are confirmed to be true. Ultraviolet light may be able to kill coronavirus on surfaces but should not be used to sterilize skin, because UV radiation can cause skin irritation.
Coronavirus has popped up in countries with a variety of different temperatures, so it’s impossible to say that people living in one climate may be more likely to contract it.
Myth: Colloidal silver prevents coronavirus
Televangelist Jim Bakker received a cease-and-desist letter from the New York attorney general after an episode of his TV show promoted “Silver Solution” as a coronavirus cure. On the episode, he interviewed a naturopath who said the product “hasn't been tested on this strain of the coronavirus, but it’s been tested on other strains of the coronavirus, and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours.” Bakker’s company was one of the seven that received letters from the FDA and FTC.
These are only some of the wild claims circulating the globe; in addition, zinc won’t prevent coronavirus from “multiplying in your throat,” and cocaine won’t kill it. Anything you read about curing the virus will be false; there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent, treat or cure covid-19. Your best bet for finding information about the coronavirus is through the WHO, CDC or similar evidence-based portals. “Don’t use conjecture, whim or non-evidence-based practices to try and combat this problem,” Sharkawy said. “I’m fine if you want to drink your water with garlic, but not if it replaces hand-washing or other evidence-based advice that we know to be helpful.”
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By and specializes in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”