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20 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:

• Current scientific modelling tells us the virus is expected to peak in 10-14 weeks. 4 out of 5 people will have symptoms akin to the common cold whereas 1 in 20 may require more medical care.

• 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.

• 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 – 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 highly unlikely to have been present in the UK before Christmas. 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.

Currently there’s no research into the use of ibuprofen and COVID-19, so we don’t know if it increases the likelihood of contracting the virus or makes the symptoms worse. The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have been asked to review this and the current advice is that if you’re displaying symptoms then use paracetamol to control temperature and body-wide aches. If you are already taking ibuprofen on the advice of your doctor, you should continue to do so.

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.

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.

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 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 - If I’ve got coronavirus symptoms, I won’t be tested

The requirement for COVID-19 testing is a worldwide issue with many countries requiring large amounts of testing kits and the facility to analyse and interpret the results. There are various logistical challenges to mass testing and whilst the UK has one of the most sophisticated public health systems, we must ensure that the testing provided is specific, sensitive and provides confidence in the results.

COVID-19 testing also provides Public Health England (PHE) with auditable data to help disease modellers determine where we are in the pandemic, what impact our current measures have taken and what implications this has for the whole nation.

The Government are aiming to carry out 25,000 test a day by mid-April with testing being prioritised to seriously ill hospital patients and front-line NHS staff workers. The strategy behind this is to ensure we’re keeping our vulnerable and front-line workers safe whilst being able to maintain a working healthcare system.

The evidence we’ve seen coming out of China provides us with confidence that you can build a good degree of immunity to COVID-19. For the population of China, if immunity hadn’t been established, we would have expected to see a large reinfection rate which hasn’t happened. Time will be required to be absolutely assured that people are developing robust COVID-19 immunity. The Government and PHE are looking at introducing finger prick testing to determine those members of our society who have already built an immunity to the virus.

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

Chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine is a medication that has been around for many years and is predominantly used to treat malaria. 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 chloroquine 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 chloroquine 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 - There are some reports that this will be over quickly is this the case?

The profile spread of the virus has been under scrutiny and the disease modelling has produced various results. Some reports say the peak of the pandemic within the UK will be around the end of April, but this is felt to be overly optimistic by some scientists.
Many factors must be considered and the government and Public Health England are doing an amazing job at managing the many variables – asking people to remain home will definitely ease and delay the spreading of the virus.

Once the nation starts to return to our normal daily pattern we will have to consider various factors to continue to manage the spread. One of these factors is limiting anywhere people can congregate in large numbers such as schools, colleges and university settings, as these provide a definite environment for a virus party. Therefore, we may find that the national picture is a slow staged return to normal lifestyles with slight peaks when these large groups reconvene.

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.

Myth – Coronavirus only affects older people

Fact – 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

Fact – 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 from 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

Fact – 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

Fact – 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 – Vaccines against pneumonia protects against coronavirus

Fact – 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 the 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 – Some antibiotics and medications can prevent and treat coronavirus

Fact – 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

Fact – There is no proof or evidence that gargling, using a mouthwash and keeping your nose clean protects 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

Fact – 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.

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

Fact – Social media and the news is awash with images of people wearing everything from face masks to full-face helmets forged from recycled water bottles and surgical/cotton gloves. Sales of paper masks and gloves have dramatically increased. Do any of these preventive methods work? No. In fact, water bottles and plastic bags worn over the head pose little more than a potential suffocation risk. Even surgical masks are unlikely to help as they are designed to keep droplets in, not out, and must be changed frequently. The wearing of gloves can also 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 – Coronavirus was/is spread by animals to humans

Fact – For now, there’s no proof that animals or pets, such as dogs or cats, can be infected with COVID-19. There is also no proof it can spread between animals and humans. You should always wash your hands and face with soap and water after handling pets and animals.

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