Debunking coronavirus myths
Can wearing masks, standing in the heat and spraying yourself with chlorine-based products really prevent you from getting coronavirus?
The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been the center of public attention since the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China this past December. According to Johns Hopkins Medical, “Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV).” Most of the viruses in this family are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted from animals to humans. At first, it was believed that COVID-19 was transmitted to humans via contaminated seafood at a market in Wuhan, China. Recent studies have shown, however, that the first patient to have contracted the virus did not visit the presumed seafood market.
Since the outbreak began in December, there have been a total of 181,305 cases of COVID-19 reported in 141 countries, the majority being in mainland China. The United States confirmed its first case of coronavirus on Jan. 21 in Seattle, Washington. The person infected was a 35-year-old man that had traveled to Wuhan and had developed a cough and a fever prior to seeking help in a local hospital. From then, the virus rapidly spread across the country, with most of the cases being linked to recent travel to affected areas. On Feb. 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of community spread — meaning the patient had not been in contact with anyone who had tested positive or had traveled to affected areas — in California. As of press time, the United States has confirmed 4,392 cases and 75 deaths, with every state except West Virginia having at least one reported case. Several states, including Massachusetts, have declared a state of emergency in response to the swift spread of the virus. As a result, schools and universities have shut down, major cruise lines have canceled upcoming trips, large gatherings have been canceled and government officials have urged employees to work from home if possible. On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and received $50 billion from Congress to address the current situation.
Fear of the virus has caused people all over the country to panic-buy canned food, over-the-counter medications, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and water, which has left most supermarkets and pharmacies empty. The uncertainty associated with the outbreak has also fostered the spread of false information about the virus, with people implementing incorrect preventive measures to fight the disease. Below are the answers to some of the most commonly held incorrect beliefs about the coronavirus and ways to dissipate its effects.
The coronavirus cannot spread to warm or humid places, so as soon as the summer season starts, the virus will quickly die.
The World Health Organization has established that the virus is likely to continue despite warmer temperatures. In fact, several countries—including Australia, Vietnam, Panama and Argentina—that are currently experiencing warm and humid temperatures have reported cases and deaths related to COVID-19.
Taking a very warm shower/bath or sitting in the sun for an extended period of time can kill the virus.
As the WHO points out, “the normal human body temperature remains around 36.5ºC and 37ºC, regardless of the external temperature or weather.” Thus, taking hot showers or baths and laying in the sun for long periods of time will not affect the livelihood of the coronavirus. On the contrary, resorting to these methods can cause serious skin burns and exposure to ultraviolet rays has been linked to other health conditions like cancer. The same concept is applicable to extreme cold temperatures: The virus will not be affected by snow or ice.
Pets can get and spread coronavirus.
Until recently, there was no evidence that pets or other animals could get or transmit the virus. However, on April 6, a zoo in New York reported that one of its tigers had tested positive for COVID-19 after interacting with an asymptomatic employee. Since then, other pets and zoo animals have tested positive. The CDC has updated information on their website regarding pets and the possible transmission of coronavirus to include preventive methods and steps to follow for pet owners. Information is still being collected and analyzed. Per the CDC, all individuals should restrict contact with and wash their hands after interacting with any animal.
Wearing a surgical mask will diminish the likelihood that you will be infected.
Surgical masks have become popular among the general public as a way of preventing infection. As infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner pointed out during an interview with Live Science, “the thinner surgical mask is intended for surgeons, because these products do a good job of keeping pathogens from the doctor's nose and mouth from entering the surgical field.” When it comes to the coronavirus, however, only N95 respirators can fully protect a person from exposure to the virus. As Schaffner explains, these are a special type of mask that can only be worn for short periods of time because of the way it tightly wraps around the nose and mouth of the individual, often causing feelings of suffocation. While normal surgical masks can help those who are infected with COVID-19 reduce the spread of the virus through air droplets, the best way to avoid infecting others is to remain isolated. It is important for people to refrain from buying N95 respirators and common surgical masks, since this could potentially exhaust the supply and deprive medical personnel from having access to them.
On April 13, the CDC began encouraging the use of face coverings in public spaces to reduce the spread among individuals who might be asymptomatic. Face masks worn by the public should not be N95 respirators or surgical masks. Rather, the CDC advises individuals to make their own masks out of cloth, cotton fabric or other household items. Their website has step-by-step instructions on how to make a mask at home.
Mosquitoes can spread coronavirus.
According to the WHO, there is no evidence that mosquitoes can spread COVID-19, which is mostly transmitted through air droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. However, mosquitoes are still carriers of other dangerous diseases, including dengue, malaria and Zika. As summer approaches and mosquitoes become more prevalent, the CDC advises individuals to dispose of standing water, close doors and windows whenever possible and consider wearing mosquito repellent in the outdoors.
Antibiotics can treat the coronavirus.
COVID-19 is a virus, antibiotics—which are only effective against bacteria—will not curb its effects. As the WHO points out, “if you are hospitalized for COVID-19, you might receive antibiotics since bacterial coinfection is possible.” Unless prescribed by a physician, individuals should avoid using antibiotics, since misuse of antibiotics is contributing to antibiotic resistance, which is making bacterial infections harder to treat and manage.
Spraying yourself with chlorine or alcohol will kill the coronavirus.
Alcohol- and chlorine-based products can be used to disinfect surfaces, including door knobs, elevator buttons and furniture. Spraying yourself with these will not, however, prevent infection from the coronavirus. Instead, it can cause harm to your body’s mucus membranes, like the eyes and the mouth, potentially causing more issues long-term. Simply wash your hands frequently with soap and avoid touching your face.
Eating garlic will prevent you from getting the coronavirus.
There is no current evidence that would indicate that eating garlic can prevent coronavirus infection or transmission.
With fear predominating the political and social discourse, it is important to be informed about the properties of COVID-19 and do some research to verify information available on social media. Per the CDC and the WHO, “the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is by frequently cleaning your hands” and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes after coming in contact with possibly contaminated surfaces. As we prepare for a spike in cases in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security issued the following advice:
- Store a two-week supply of water and food.
- Check with your pharmacy about supplies of prescription medications.
- Purchase over-the-counter medications that can be used to combat the flu.
- Practice social distancing: stay three to six feet apart from others.
- Stay home when you feel sick.
Sleeping at least eight hours a day, remaining physically active, keeping a healthy diet, managing your stress and drinking plenty of fluids can strengthen your immune system and keep you physically healthy during this time. Additionally, make sure to take care of your mental health by practicing self-care and reaching out for help when necessary.
Editor's note: Information on the article was updated to reflect the most recent findings by public health authorities.