Debunking Global COVID-19 Myths
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 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. Use the form to ask your COVID-19 questions, and we will do our best to respond.
Myth: You may have heard the myth that if you test negative for Covid-19 that 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: 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 the new coronavirus by how they are feeling. Wearing a mask lowers the likelihood of the virus being spread from one person to another.
Myth: You can only get Covid-19 once, and that 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 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: Diesel and petrol can be used to clean masks and other PPE or sunlight can disinfect N95 face masks
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: Infrared thermometers that take your temperature without touching your body can damage the brain
This is not true. These thermometers use infrared waves to take your temperature. These are the same kinds of waves used by your television remote control. Some rumors say these infrared thermometers cause blindness and that they damage glands in the brain. These rumors are not true. These kinds of thermometers read the temperature at the surface of your body and use a calculation to convert this into your internal temperature. Some infrared thermometers use a laser, but this is not what is taking your temperature. The laser helps the person using the thermometer know they are aiming it at the right part of the body.
Myth: Children are immune or cannot get COVID-19
This is not true. Children do become infected with the new coronavirus, and they do get sick – some of them seriously sick – and children can die from Covid-19. By the end of July, 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: 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: 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.
Source: CDC, https://www.adventhealth.com/blog/why-you-need-social-distance-and-cover-your-face-even-if-you-dont-have-symptoms
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. Experimental 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. Experimental vaccines do not contain microchips or tracking devices.
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: UV rays from sunlight kill the new coronavirus
But 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: 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: COVID-19 is a disease of the elite, that it only affects Europeans, and Americans and that 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, 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: 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: 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: Avoid anyone who has fully recovered from Covid-19 for fear that they could be contagious
But 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: A cure for COVID-19 has been discovered in Italy
This is not true. There is no treatment that cures the coronavirus. Lots of false cures have been mentioned and sold to people but these do not work against the virus and some of them are harmful to the body.
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. In the case of Covid-19, there is still no drug that is approved to treat or prevent the condition. That means it’s really important to protect yourself from infection by staying at least 6 feet (or 2 metres) away from people, wearing a face mask and not touching your face.
MYTH: A vaccine for COVID-19 has already been developed, or was developed years ago
More than 100 research groups around the world are working to find a vaccine to prevent Covid-19. A few vaccines are being tested in humans but these clinical trials are in the early stages with not enough information to say yet if they work or not. Many people hope that a vaccine will be available soon, even by the end of 2020 but it takes a lot of time to test vaccines for safety and efficacy, and then to manufacture millions of vaccines, so there is no guarantee that one will be available this year or even in 2021. It’s important to know there is no vaccine currently available so that you and your community do not have a false sense of security. Protect yourself and your family from infection by following the physical distancing and infection control guidelines.
MYTH: You can become infected with the new coronavirus by touching goods imported from China
This is not true. The World Health Organization says it is safe to use imported goods from China. That’s because while the virus can survive for hours or even days on some surfaces, the amount of virus decreases over time and any virus on the surface of imported goods would likely not be infectious by the time it arrived in a different country because of the time taken to transport the goods and the conditions along the way.
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: 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. And 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: Hydroxycholoroquine can treat Covid-19
This is not true. Hydroxychloroquine is a medicine used to treat malaria and some other diseases. It does not treat Covid-19 and some studies it can show harm to patients with Covid-19. Right now, there aren’t any medicines proven to work against Covid-19.
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. There is no established treatment for Covid-19 and while antibiotics can treat bacterial infections they cannot treat Covid-19. 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: Blue facemasks are contaminated with the new coronavirus
Face masks purchased in sealed packaging are not contaminated with the virus – and the colour of a mask is not an indication of its safety. Face masks can become contaminated if they come into contact with someone who has the virus and if virus particles from that person’s body land on the facemask. Then it is possible that the virus could survive for a few days on the facemask. Masks should be worn to protect other people from your germs, for example when you have to leave your home for an essential purpose such as grocery shopping.
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: COVID-19 cannot survive warm climates
The virus that causes COVID-19 can survive and spread in warm climates. SARS-CoV-2 has spread in countries such as Singapore where the climate is humid and temperatures were higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Tens of thousands of people have been infected in Singapore, and as of May 8, more than 54,000 were infected in Africa. The coronavirus can spread in hot weather and has also spread in countries such as the UK where temperatures were cooler. Hot weather does not protect you from catching the infection. It is important to practice physical distancing, avoid touching your face, and wash hands regularly, to avoid infection.
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: Vaccines for pneumonia protect against COVID-19
This is not true. While there are vaccines for other causes of pneumonia, there is no vaccine that can prevent Covid-19. 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 is no vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus. But there are vaccines that protect against other causes of pneumonia. These vaccines do not directly protect you from the new coronavirus, but they do help keep your lungs healthy and that is especially important while the new 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. Remember: there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus. The pneumonia vaccines we have now do not directly protect against the new coronavirus, but they help to keep the lungs healthy overall.
Here’s a myth you have heard about the coronavirus: the myth says the virus 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.
Here’s a myth you have heard about the coronavirus: if you can afford it, there is a shot you can get that will make you immune.
This is not true. There is no vaccine to treat or prevent the new coronavirus, and there are no proven medicines that specifically treat the new coronavirus.
Another myth you have heard about the coronavirus: maize meal (mielie meal) will decrease the chance of you dying from COVID-19.
This is not true. Maize meal does not decrease chances of getting sick with COVID-19 or dying from the disease. Because this is a new virus, there are still no proven medicines that fight the virus. It can be dangerous to take medicines that are unproven against a disease.
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. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is a new virus and so far there are no proven medicines that specifically treat it. 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.
Another myth says there’s a correlation between COVID-19 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.
Another myth says that if you have received malaria treatment such as quinine, that you are immune.
But this is not true. Malaria treatments such as quinine are not proven to work against this new 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.
While we may not be able to individually respond to your questions and myths, we value your input and will be aggregating submissions and responding to the most common myths.
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.