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Debunking Global COVID-19 Myths

To combat the fear and misinformation spreading almost faster than the virus itself, Dr. Seema Yasmin joins us to debunk myths and share evidence-based COVID-19 information.

You asked and we answered. With fear and misinformation spreading almost faster than the virus itself, it is more important than ever to ensure myths are debunked and accurate health information is accessible to all. 

Below you will find common myths that drew attention in 2020 related to COVID-19, and evidence-based responses from Dr. Seema Yasmin, Director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford University Department of Medicine.

MYTH: Inhaling steam is an effective COVID-19 treatment

This is false. There is no evidence that inhaling steam kills the virus. When we are infected with the new coronavirus the virus is inside our cells and inhaling steam will not affect it.

The virus can be killed on surfaces using very hot water – at around 70 degrees Celsius, or hotter – as well as chemicals, but water and chemicals that are safe for surfaces are not safe for your body.

Bringing hot water into close contact with your face and airways can cause burns and serious damage, so please do not try inhaling steam. 

MYTH: BCG-vaccinated people are immune to COVID

This is not true. People who received the BCG vaccine are not immune to the new coronavirus. Some studies have shown lower rates of infection in countries where BCG vaccines are given, but it has not been proven that these countries have possibly lower COVID-19 rates specifically because of the BCG vaccine.

MYTH: Face masks can reduce oxygen getting to the lungs and bloodstream

This is not true for healthy people wearing surgical or cloth masks. There are many types of masks, from tight-fitting N95 respirators to looser surgical masks and homemade cloth masks.

Some masks mean you have to put more effort into breathing if you wear them for a long time. The N95 mask forms a seal and filters 95 percent of particles. If worn for many hours without a break, an N95 mask might potentially affect oxygen levels but likely not to a dangerous extent, especially in people who are healthy. Looser surgical masks and cloth masks do not lower oxygen levels. It’s important to wear the right mask for the right situation.

For example, medical workers in high risk situations need well-fitting N95 respirators, whereas healthy people going to the store may choose to use surgical or cloth masks. Wearing a surgical mask or homemade cloth mask will keep your germs in and protect others from you. Masks should not be worn by children under the age of 2 years or by anyone with breathing problems.

Remember, if you are healthy and breathing normally, a mask will not lower your blood oxygen levels.

MYTH: Drinking or inhaling alcohol hand gel and household disinfectants can kill the coronavirus if it is inside your body

You should not ever drink or inhale alcohol hand gel or use disinfectants meant for household cleaning on your body.

While these chemicals are good at cleaning surfaces, they are extremely harmful to internal organs. In fact, drinking hand gels or disinfectants can cause headache, blurred vision, vomiting, seizures, blindness, and even death.

MYTH: UV rays from sunlight kill the coronavirus

Although the heat of sunlight can weaken the outer layer of the coronavirus and help kill the virus on surfaces, it can take a long time and in the meantime a person could touch the surface, touch their nose, mouth or eyes and become infected.

It is not safe to assume that sunlight will kill a virus when you are around others on a sunny day. Going to the beach on a sunny day and assuming the sunlight will kill virus is not a safe assumption because the virus can still spread from person to person when the virus is shed as an infected person talks or breathes or coughs.

MYTH: Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body kills COVID-19

Spraying alcohol or disinfectants over your body is NOT recommended. 

Disinfectants such as alcohol – of 70 percent concentration or higher –  and chlorine, are useful for disinfecting surfaces that might be contaminated with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Alcohol is also used in hand gels for sanitizing hands. But applying harsh chemicals all over the body can damage skin and increase your risk of contracting other infections.

Use harsh chemical disinfectants for regularly cleaning surfaces such as door handles, taps, and light switches, and use soap and water for cleaning hands and the body. Alcohol hand sanitizing gel can be used on the hands when soap and water are unavailable.

MYTH: Swabs used to test for COVID-19 and vaccines currently tested to see if they work against COVID-19 contain microchip tracking devices

These myths are not true.

In the case of swabs, they are made of cotton and plastic and are sterile sticks used to wipe the back of the nose and throat to test for the virus. Swabs do not contain microchips or leave microchips in the body.

Vaccines for COVID-19 contain weakened non-infectious versions of the virus, or they use small fragments of the virus, or they contain pieces of the virus’s genetic code. Vaccines do not contain microchips or tracking devices.

MYTH: Children are immune or cannot get COVID-19

This is not true. Children do become infected with coronavirus, and they do get sick – some of them seriously sick – and children can die from COVID-19.

By the end of July 2020, over 338,000 children had tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States. Overall, these numbers are lower in children compared to adults, especially compared to older adults, but it is important to protect children from infection because even if they do not show signs of illness, they could infect others who could become very sick.

MYTH: Medicines such as hydroxychloroquine and Zithromax can cure coronavirus 

This is FALSE. These medicines do not work against the virus that causes COVID-19.

Hydroxychloroquine is an old medicine that works against malaria, lupus and some types of arthritis but studies in COVID-19 patients have shown hydroxychloroquine is not an effective treatment and in fact can cause heart problems and liver problems in COVID-19 patients.

Zithromax – also known as a Z-pack or azithromycin – is an antibiotic that works against some bacteria. Antibiotics do not work against viruses. The reason azithromycin was tested in COVID-19 patients is because sometimes a viral infection leaves a person’s body vulnerable to a bacterial infection and in that case antibiotics can be helpful. But studies testing azithromycin in COVID-19 patients shows it does not help these patients.

It’s really important to use the right medicine for a particular disease and hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are not effective against COVID-19.

MYTH: Asymptomatic people are not infectious and don’t need to be quarantined

It’s not true that asymptomatic people are not infectious – in fact up to 40% of infections may be spread from people who are infected but feel completely fine.

Some people who test positive for COVID-19 feel healthy and have no symptoms and those people do have to quarantine and stay away from other people to avoid infecting others. Some people who have no symptoms are described as asymptomatic but some people eventually do go on to develop symptoms and those people are referred to as pre-symptomatic.

Either way, it’s important to remember that someone who looks and feels healthy could be potentially contagious.

MYTH: Antibiotics can prevent and treat COVID-19

This is not true. Antibiotics are medicines used to treat bacteria, and COVID-19 is caused by a virus, which is a different kind of bug to bacteria. 

Some patients with COVID-19 are given antibiotics because they develop a second bacterial infection on top of COVID-19. In that case, antibiotics can help them clear the bacterial infection, but the antibiotics won’t have an effect on the viral infection. 

It is important to take the right medicine for the right illness.

MYTH: Diesel and petrol can be used to clean masks and other PPE or sunlight can disinfect N95 facemasks

These rumors are not true. Diesel and petrol can damage the material of masks; and diesel and petrol are dangerous if they touch the skin, or are inhaled or swallowed – any of which could happen if you soak a mask in diesel or petrol and then wear it.

PPE is in high demand and many people are reusing and trying to preserve the equipment for as long as possible. But using diesel and petrol on PPE can weaken it and leave it useless. The same applies to using sunlight to clean N95 masks – the sunlight can damage the mask and weaken it.

Here are some safe ways to clean masks:

  • To clean cloth face masks, wash them as you would clothes and ideally dry them in a tumble drier at high heat. 
  • N95 masks should not be washed. Instead, if you need to reuse an N95, place it in a paper bag for 72 hours before wearing it again. 

Remember to get rid of PPE that is visibly soiled or showing signs of wear and tear.

MYTH: If you test negative for COVID-19 then it means you definitely don’t have COVID-19

This is not true. With tests for COVID-19 there is always the possibility of a false negative test, meaning a person tests negative even though the virus is inside their body. This can happen for a number of reasons.

First, if a person is having a PCR test, also known as a molecular test, this usually involves a long thin swab being pushed into their nose and to the back of their throat. But if this swab is not pushed far back enough this can cause a false negative.

Second, the person might be infected with the virus but there might only be very small amounts of the virus in their body – this can happen early on in the infection – and if this is the case, a test might not detect those small amounts of virus.

Third, there can be problems with the test kits themselves that cause some people who are positive to test negative.

For these reasons, we have to interpret the results of COVID-19 tests with additional information about the patient, how the patient is feeling, who they have been exposed to, and if they live in an area where there is a lot of virus being spread.

MYTH: You should avoid the hospital if you want to stay healthy

While it is true that places such as hospitals and care homes can have higher transmission rates, it can be dangerous to avoid the hospital when you need medical help. 

If you or someone else is experiencing a life-threatening emergency, it is important to get medical attention immediately. Do not avoid going to a hospital in that situation. 

For non-emergencies, call a doctor or other healthcare provider to ask if a hospital visit is necessary. And if you do have to visit a medical facility for a non-emergency, wear a mask and physically distance yourself from others as much as possible.

MYTH: Herbal tonics made from the artemisia plant in Madagascar can treat COVID-19

This is not true. This plant is not known to treat COVID-19. 

The artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood plant, is used to make drugs to treat malaria. Malaria is caused by a parasite spread through mosquito bites, whereas COVID-19 is caused by a virus – a very different kind of bug. Researchers are studying the artemisia plant to see if it works against COVID-19 but right now there is no proof that a herbal tonic made from the plant can help patients with the disease. The World Health Organization is concerned that people over-using the plant could boost malaria resistance, which means the drug may become less effective against malaria. 

It’s very important to use the right medicine for an illness and artemisia herbal tonics are not proven to work against COVID-19.

MYTH: If you received the Quinine vaccine, you are immune to COVID

Another myth says that if you have received malaria treatment such as quinine, that you are immune to COVID-19.

But this is not true. Malaria treatments such as quinine are not proven to work against this infection. Taking malaria treatments will not make you immune from the virus and taking the wrong medicine for a disease can cause serious harm to your health.

MYTH: N95 respirator masks are the only kinds of masks that protect against COVID-19

This is not true. N95s offer some of the best protection against the virus because if worn properly and if forming a tight seal around the mask and face, they filter out 95% of particles. 

Cloth masks and surgical masks are more loose than an N95, but studies show that they offer significant protection against the spread of the virus. It’s important to wear a mask when around other people and maintain six feet distance.

MYTH: Vaccines for pneumonia protect against COVID-19

This is not true. Pneumonia is a disease caused by many different bugs, such as bacteria and viruses, including the new coronavirus. Pneumonia is a serious lung infection and it causes symptoms such as chest pain and difficulty breathing. 

There are vaccines that protect against other causes of pneumonia. These vaccines do not directly protect you from coronavirus, but they do help keep your lungs healthy and that is especially important while the coronavirus is spreading. That’s because if you have a lung infection caused by one bug, you are more likely to catch a second bug on top of that and more likely to get seriously sick. 

If you are in a group that should get the pneumonia vaccine – including people over the age of 65 years, and people with certain health conditions – then it’s important that you are up to date with your vaccinations. The pneumonia vaccines we have now do not directly protect against the new coronavirus, but they help to keep the lungs healthy overall.

MYTH: Wearing a mask means you don’t have to physically distance from other people

But while masks offer protection from the spread of the coronavirus, they are one tool among many that should be used together to lower spread. Masks protect you from other people’s respiratory droplets and keep your droplets away from others, but especially if you’re using cloth or surgical masks which don’t form a seal between the mask and your face, there’s the risk of some droplets containing the virus still getting around the mask. 

To protect yourself and others you should wear a mask and maintain six feet distance from others, and also wash your hands frequently and shelter-in-place in areas where virus spread is high. Everyone should wear a mask to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, only children younger than 2 years and some people with breathing problems should not wear masks.

MYTH: You don’t need to wear a mask to protect against the coronavirus

This is false. Masks protect you from other people’s germs and they protect other people from you. Masks are crucial at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Masks are especially important because up to 40% of transmission is happening from people who feel fine and don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19. 

We now have evidence comparing virus spread in countries that mandated masks vs those countries that didn’t, and it’s likely masks were really important in dramatically lowering virus spread in places where many people work masks.

MYTH: Swabs used for mouth and nose tests for the new coronavirus can give you the virus

This is not true. The swabs used to take samples for coronavirus testing are sterile, meaning they’re completely clean with no bugs on them. 

Healthcare workers are trained to carefully open the packet and remove the swab without touching the tip. This is so the specimen taken from your body is the only thing being tested, and not any contaminants on the swab. 

Sterile swabs cannot cause any infection.

MYTH: Avoid anyone who has fully recovered from COVID-19 for fear that they could be contagious

A person who has had COVID-19 is not contagious if they meet all of the following 3 criteria: First, 10 days must have passed since their symptoms started; Second, they must have gone 3 days without fever – and it’s important they didn’t use a medicine to lower the fever; Third, other symptoms must have improved (or completely resolved). 

It’s important to know this because people with COVID-19 and those who have recovered should be treated with care and respect. They should not be feared or stigmatized. 

Whether you’ve recovered from COVID-19 or have never had COVID-19, you can protect yourself and others by wearing a mask when you’re around others and knowing the facts about how to prevent infections. It is important to prevent infection by wearing a mask when you are around others to keep your germs away from them.

MYTH: There’s a correlation between COVID and 5G

This not true. There is no link between 5G and the coronavirus pandemic. 5G does not increase your risk of infection or sickness. So there’s no need to change the way you use your mobile phone.

MYTH: COVID is like malaria

Here’s another myth you have heard about the coronavirus: COVID is like Malaria, you can take pills to treat it.

This is not true. COVID-19 is different to malaria; it is caused by a virus whereas malaria is caused by a parasite. This means the way the coronavirus enters your body and attacks your cells is completely different to the malaria parasite, and the treatments are also different. 

You may have heard that an old medicine used to treat malaria is being tested to see if it works against the coronavirus, but it has not yet been proven to work. In the meantime, if you take the wrong medicine for the coronavirus, it can cause serious harm to your health.

MYTH: COVID-19 is a disease of the elite. It only affects Europeans, and Americans. Africans don’t get sick with it

But this is not true. The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads from person to person and can infect anyone. In fact, the virus has spread to more than 200 countries and territories in the first few months of 2020 and has infected more than 8 million people – of all backgrounds. 

In Africa in June 2020, the number of cases doubled from 100,000 to 200,000 in just one week. And experts predict a surge in infections across the continent. It can be dangerous to assume you have some kind of immunity to the infection because everyone is vulnerable to COVID-19. Dropping your guard and not following safety guidelines such as wearing a mask and physically distancing can put you at risk of infection.

MYTH: Coronavirus does not attack people at a young age

Here’s why this information is wrong. Children and teenagers are at risk of infection with the new coronavirus. Children and teenagers can get very sick with the infection and die from it. Early on in the pandemic there were reports of few infections among children, but since then we have seen that young children up to teenagers can get sick and die from COVID-19. 

It’s important that children follow the same safety guidelines as adults. These include regular hand washing, good cough hygiene, and sheltering in place.

MYTH: Hydroxychloroquine can prevent COVID-19

This is not true. The myth has spread partly because of high profile individuals saying that they take the medicine to protect them from coronavirus infection. 

Hydroxychloroquine is a medicine used to prevent malaria and also used to treat some types of arthritis and immune system conditions such as lupus. But it has not been shown to treat or protect against COVID-19. In fact, a new study of more than 90,000 patients across all 6 continents showed that hydroxychloroquine does not work against the new coronavirus and can cause serious side effects including heart problems. 

It’s important to take the right medicine for the right condition.

MYTH: Vitamin D supplements can prevent or even treat COVID-19

These myths began when some research studies showed higher rates of death and disease from COVID-19 in places where people have lower vitamin D levels. But — these studies do not prove that low vitamin D levels are the cause of disease and death. In fact, there is no proof that taking a vitamin D supplement can prevent or treat COVID-19. The danger of believing this myth is that people could take a vitamin D supplement and have a false sense of protection against the infection.

MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccine will be rushed and approved even before it has been thoroughly tested for safety

This rumor is fueled by the news that the Russian government approved a vaccine in August even before testing was complete. However, most countries in the world have strict rules about vaccine testing and these rules mean that a vaccine has to first be checked in thousands of people for safety and it has to be checked to make sure that it works – before it is approved. 

MYTH: You can only get COVID-19 once, and once you’ve had the infection, you are immune for a long time

The truth is, it’s too early for us to fully understand exactly how long a person might be protected from reinfection after they’ve first been infected. This is because this is a new virus and it is still being studied. Studies published in August 2020 revealed that immunity to the virus might last for more than 3 months after infection meaning people who have had COVID-19 once are unlikely to get reinfected soon after infection – but more studies are still being done. 

It’s important to remain careful even if you have already had COVID-19 because there is no guarantee that being infected once prevents you from becoming infected again.

MYTH: Drinking alcohol gel can kill the coronavirus inside your body if you are infected

This is not true. Alcohol hand gel is useful for disinfecting your hands, but it should not be applied widely over the body and should never be inhaled or swallowed. Drinking alcohol gel can cause methanol poisoning which can be deadly.

MYTH: Wearing a face mask is only helpful if the person wearing the mask has symptoms of COVID-19

This is not true. Even if a person feels completely fine, they can still be infected and still be contagious. This is especially common during the first few days of infection, when a person feels normal before having symptoms. That means you can become infected by a person who feels healthy. But if that person is wearing a mask, it protects others around them by keeping their germs in. 

It’s important to remember that you can’t tell if a person is infected with coronavirus by how they are feeling. Wearing a mask lowers the likelihood of the virus being spread from one person to another.

About Dr. Yasmin

Dr. Seema Yasmin is a Stanford Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Research and Education at Stanford Center for Health Education. She is also an Emmy Award-winning journalist, poet, medical doctor and author. She served as an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where she investigated disease outbreaks and was principal investigator on a number of CDC studies.

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