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17 coronavirus (COVID-19) myths debunked

There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about coronavirus (COVID-19). Benenden Health’s Society Matron Cheryl Lythgoe separates the fact from the fiction with these scientific truths about this global pandemic.

What we know about coronavirus

Although we’re all learning new things about coronavirus daily, there are a few facts we know to be absolutely true about the virus today:

• 4 out of 5 people will have symptoms akin to the common cold whereas 1 in 20 may require more medical care.

• On average it takes 5 days from the moment you are infected for symptoms to appear, although World Health Organisation do say it can take up to 14 days. The healthier people who contract the virus will benefit the population at large. This is because it will allow the body to build natural antibodies against the virus therefore providing ‘herd immunity’ for the population. This will help to protect the more vulnerable.

• This pandemic will place immeasurable strain on our health system so people need to take a common-sense approach and follow Public Health England guidelines of good hygiene, appropriately managing respiratory symptoms and self-isolating when required. Remember, Hands - Face - Space.

• The term “pandemic” does not have a strict technical definition, but basically it means there is sustained person-to-person spread in multiple countries. It does not infer the severity of the disease/virus.

• Be kind, look after those who are more vulnerable and do not panic.

Coronavirus myths debunked

Myth – Covering up with DIY masks and gloves is a good idea

Since the 15th June, it has been compulsory to wear a face covering whilst on public transport and this was extended to shops on the 24th of July.

Masks work by preventing the spread of the droplets released when you speak or cough. If two people are having a conversation and are both wearing masks, it will be more difficult for one of them to spread the virus to the other (not impossible though). The most effective way to wear your mask is over your nose and mouth. You should put your mask on with clean hands and avoid touching it while wearing it.

However, face coverings are not an alternative to maintaining social distancing or washing your hands regularly - you should still be doing these things as much as possible. Refresh your understanding with our guide to handwashing

The wearing of gloves, on the other hand, can lead to false confidence and decrease good hand hygiene. We need to ensure we regularly wash hands, not touch our face and keep surfaces clean.

Myth – I had a bad cold before Christmas that was difficult to shake – could I have already had COVID-19?

At the end of 2019 there was some long-lasting colds around that many found much harder to shake off than normal. So, it’s a reasonable assumption that COVID-19 could have been present in the UK for many months prior to the pandemic. Unfortunately, however, the research findings don’t support this assumption.

Scientists have undertaken lots of work around the genes and sequencing of this virus to explore where it originated. The most likely source is related to animals found in Chinese markets which gives confidence that the virus hasn’t arisen in the UK. Therefore, looking at the timings and geographical spread of the virus it’s unlikely to have been present in the UK before Christmas, but not impossible. The respiratory infections that our nation was seeing around the Christmas period are thought to be due to a seasonal virus.

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Myth – It isn’t safe to take ibuprofen when I have symptoms of Coronavirus

A plethora of misinformation and fake news has been on social media stating there has been a strong link between ibuprofen and increased symptoms, or even death, from coronavirus.

In April, the Commission on Human Medicines research confirmed that there is no clear evidence to suggest that using Ibuprofen will worsen the symptoms of coronavirus. Therefore, the NHS recommends using either paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease coronavirus symptoms.

Myth – Vaccines against pneumonia protect against coronavirus

The truth is that no vaccines against pneumonia protect against COVID-19, this is a different virus and needs its own vaccine. Scientists are currently conducting trials and studies to develop a vaccine. There’s a lengthy process needed to produce, test and launch a vaccine for the masses so experts are predicting this will take 18-24 months using an accelerated timetable. So, a vaccine is not going to stop the current outbreak. The race to develop a vaccine is therefore about stopping the future spread of infection. If a person contacts pneumonia while suffering from coronavirus the pneumonia vaccine could be effective against the condition. Irrespective of this, it is important that those who are vulnerable maintain their recommended preventative vaccine schedules (i.e. flu and pneumonia).

Myth – We don’t need lockdown, social distancing would have the same effect

The purpose of lockdown is to limit the spread of the virus, provide protection for our vulnerable members of society and stage the increased pressure on NHS resources. Taking information gathered from the pandemic spread, and combining this with data from China and Italy, has allowed scientists and mathematicians to work out what is thought to be the most effective way of managing this virus.

It has been recognised that the populations of both China and Italy are not representative of those in the UK, but cross modelling with other studies has given confidence in the findings. The most effective management strategies, which showed the most positive impact, have been stopping travel and keeping people within their family homes. This decision is undoubtedly hard from an economic, social and logistical stance but it does have the most sustainable health benefit for the nation. To assist both the health and economic sectors of our nation, local lockdowns are being used to protect and support, nevertheless it is vitally important we maintain our recommended hands, face, space guidelines.

Myth - All flu-like symptoms are coronavirus

COVID-19 is a virus that can be in the body for 48 hours before the symptoms appear. Symptoms are the ways our body responds to trying to remove and fight viruses. COVID-19 is an acute virus that tries to dodge your immune system through entering your respiratory system first before migrating into your epithelial (tissue) cells so that it can rapidly replicate.

One of the first symptoms appears to be a temperature as this is the bodies general response to a widespread virus, followed by the continuous cough. The continuous cough lasts much longer than the live virus in the system, but it’s still vitally important that we observe good hand hygiene and social etiquette when coughing. The loss of smell or taste are both predominant coronavirus symptoms and this can be in combination or in isolation of the temperature and cough. 

Without testing it would be unwise to give a blanket statement but if you have the above symptoms of a temperature with a continuous cough, with or without a loss of smell or taste, then it’s highly likely you have coronavirus. If you have congestion, and a wet or chesty cough, this may be the usual seasonal influenza type cold.

Myth - President Trump said that chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine can be used is this correct?

Hydroxychloroquine is a medication that has been around for many years and is predominantly used to treat several conditions. Since we’ve been using this medication for some time, we know it’s safe for people to use. But is it effective against COVID-19?

There’s no research to say that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19. Researchers are exploring whether this drug will provide a treatment option but with the lack of robust evidence it’s currently not being used in connection with COVID-19. The FDA (the drug regulatory authority in America) were very quick to respond to President Trumps statement to say hydroxychloroquine is not validated to be used in the prevention, treatment or management of COVID-19.

Myth - Coronavirus survives for weeks on some surfaces

Coronavirus is thought to be primarily spread via droplets in the air which are typically expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Some research suggests that the coronavirus cells can last approximately three hours in the air. Following the Diamond Princess cruise, a recent report found that following the dis-embarkment of coronavirus infected passengers the virus was still detectable for up to 17 days. However, this does not mean the virus was live and would cause further infection, just that parts of the virus remained.

For a virus to be transmitted it needs all its component parts, therefore, an incomplete cell may not be transmittable. Whilst we are still learning about coronavirus it is thought that it lasts approximately three hours on copper surfaces, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 72 hours on plastics and steel. These suggested virus survival times reminds us of the need to ensure good hand hygiene and regular surface cleaning with household detergent.

Myth - If I can hold my breath for ten seconds does this mean I don’t have Coronavirus?

Unfortunately not. This is yet again a piece of false information that appears to be spreading through social media. The tests claim that if you can hold your breath comfortably for 10 seconds you don’t have any fibrosis in the lungs. Fibrosis of the lungs shows if there has been any overgrowth, hardening or scarring of the lung tissue which can be caused by many different things and can take months to years to develop.

Holding your breath would not necessarily diagnosis fibrosis or infection and therefore doesn’t provide a clear indicator of whether or not you are coronavirus positive. Consider the breath holding capacity of an athlete compared to that of an elderly person – both will be very different when they are in good health never mind if they have a respiratory virus.

Myth - Diarrhoea is not a coronavirus symptom, as this is a respiratory virus

For most people with coronavirus their symptoms will be respiratory in origin. But for some, it can be possible to get gastrointestinal (or diarrhoea) symptoms. This is because the virus needs to enter a particular type of cell to allow it to spread which is commonly found in two places, mainly in the lungs but also in the small and large intestines.

Usually the stomach acid will break down the virus preventing it from entering the small and large intestines but occasionally some of the virus will make it through to the gut causing gastrointestinal symptoms. For someone with diarrhoeal type symptoms when you flush the toilet you cause an aerosol full of viral infection. Therefore, for anyone with coronavirus, but more importantly for those with gut symptoms, it is vitally important to ensure that when you have used the toilet you place the toilet lid down prior to flushing and thoroughly wash your hands.

Gut symptoms are presently appearing with more prevalence in children but the numbers on this are still relatively small.

Myth – Coronavirus only affects older people

Any age can be affected by coronavirus. Older people, those with an impaired immune system and people with medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart diseases, etc. appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

Myth – All hand sanitisers can protect you from coronavirus

Not all hand sanitisers are created equal. They are extremely useful when travelling or commuting, but if your hand sanitiser contains less than 60 per cent alcohol – or, worse, none – it won't offer much protection against coronavirus. Expert advice at Public Health England and the World Health Organisation states that hand sanitisers must contain at least 60 per cent alcohol to be truly effective. Soap and water remain the best method of removing bacteria and viruses.

Myth – Alcohol can kill the coronavirus

Booze will not prevent you catching the virus. Whether it's vodka or the finest Merlot, your tipple of choice will not cure coronavirus. Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will also not help. Alcohol and chlorine can be useful to disinfect surfaces, but they need to be used under appropriate recommendations.

Myth – It is unsafe to receive a package from infected countries

No, it isn’t unsafe to receive packages from infected areas. Coronavirus does not survive long on objects like packages, and it is safe to receive mail from infected countries. Most viruses live on hard surfaces for approximately 48 hours, but this is dependent upon heat, sunlight and the virus. Transference is made through touching a live contaminated surface and then touching your face, eyes, or mouth.

Myth – Some antibiotics and medications can prevent and treat coronavirus

COVID-19 is a virus which means antibiotics are not effective against it. There is no proof or evidence that specific medicines can fully prevent or treat coronavirus. If a person is severely unwell medication can be to manage the symptoms of the virus, but not the virus itself.

Myth – Gargling, using mouthwash and keeping your nose clean protects you against coronavirus

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence to suggest regularly rinsing the nose with saline or gargling mouthwash will ward off COVID-19. Increasing hand hygiene and not touching the face will help to protect viral spread.

Myth – Hand dryers kill the coronavirus

No, not even those made by James Dyson! Hand dryers are not effective in killing coronavirus or any other known virus for that matter. To protect yourself, clean your hands frequently with soap and water. Once your hands are clean, you should dry them thoroughly by using paper towels or a warm air dryer.

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