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COVID-19: Busting some Myths

Gautam I. Menon

From colloidal silver to essential oils, myths continue to abound on social media about home-grown remedies to treat or prevent COVID-19. We asked Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University, Sonipat and Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai to lay some of these myths to rest. You can also check out answers to some commonly asked questions about COVID-19 here.

Myth Featured

Myth: Curfews like Janata curfew’ implemented on 22nd March in India are enough to kill the majority of viruses

The novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 can multiply in infected people and is mainly transmitted between people who are in close contact with one another. It can be transferred through droplets which are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, if these droplets reach others nearby, for example when you touch your mouth and nose after shaking hands with someone. This is the main way in which the virus moves from person to person, although this can also happen when someone touches a surface where droplets containing coronavirus have lodged. 

The novel coronavirus can survive for varying amounts of time on different surfaces, ranging from a few hours to a few days, so a 14 hour curfew period is hardly enough to kill all or even most of them from public surfaces, although the longer-term lockdown should help in this. 

Indeed, if a lockdown were sufficient to get rid of viruses, all of our health problems arising from viruses would have been solved by just asking everyone to stay home one day in a year. 

What is true, however, is that every bit of physical distancing helps to break the chain by which infected people keep infecting people who don’t have the disease. This is the real purpose behind the lockdown. It can also allow those who have the disease to be identified and quarantined more easily.

Myth: The acid in our stomach kills the virus if we drink enough water

Most viruses can survive exposure to stomach acids. If you drink more water, the acid in your stomach would be diluted, much as we dilute acid in a chemistry laboratory by adding water to it. So one would expect any effect of the acid to be weakened, not strengthened if you drank more water. 

The novel coronavirus affects our respiratory tract, leading to difficulty in breathing which is a characteristic symptom of COVID-19. The stomach has nothing much to do with the virus and the acid in the stomach would play no role either.

Myth: The Indian immune system is better than the west and thus Indians will survive COVID-19 infection better

If this were indeed true, Indians would be the healthiest people in the world, with a life expectancy exceeding those from other nations. In fact, India ranks 128th in the world in terms of life expectancy. The influenza pandemic of 1918 hit India hardest out of the countries of the world, with between 5 – 10% of Indians dying from it.

India has 7 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world in terms of air quality as well as the second-highest number of diabetics in the world. Both of these mean that Indians might be more likely to have adverse outcomes when exposed to the coronavirus.

For a virus that our bodies have not seen before, such as the novel coronavirus, it doesn’t seem likely that there should be any component of immunity that might protect Indians but not others. 

Myth: Warmer climates or weather will kill the virus or prevent it from spreading

We just don’t know what might happen at this point with this particular virus and what its sensitivity to temperature might be, but there is little we know to suggest that it will go away simply because the weather became warmer or wetter. In some cases, as for the influenza virus, there is some seasonality in infections, with the flu season” in the cooler parts of the northern hemisphere largely confined to the winter months. However, you should remember that summer in the northern hemisphere is winter in the southern hemisphere, so the virus could find a comfortable home there temporarily and then return to infect us later in the year. This is one of many possibilities with seasonality.

Myth: Taking ibuprofen worsens COVID-19 symptoms

Current advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that they see no problem with having ibuprofen if you have COVID-19 symptoms. 

Myth: If I am young and healthy, I don’t need to follow precautionary steps or physical distancing

While you might manage to beat the infection, you should also think of those around you who may be elderly or infirm or simply have weaker immunity. Do you want to be responsible for the illness they might contract? Another point is that there have been a few cases of death and serious illness in even young and healthy patients, for reasons no one really understands. So being young and healthy doesn’t mean you can escape, both the disease as well as its consequences for others.

Myth: Inhaling steam can kill the virus

There is absolutely no reason to believe this and if you are not careful, you might wind up with a bad steam burn. 

Myth: COVID-19 can be treated by colloidal silver, vitamins, teas, and essential oils

Again there is no evidence for any special role for colloidal silver, vitamins, teas, and essential oils in dealing with COVID-19 symptoms.

Myth: Ginger, lemon, honey, and Indian spices are good for treating/​fighting COVID-19

There is no evidence for this apart from the fact that some Indian spices might have a weak antibacterial effect. However, COVID-19 is caused by a virus, not a bacterium.

Myth: Clapping hands creates vibrations that destroy the coronavirus

Clapping hands creates sound waves. The sound that is created is sensed through the vibrations of our eardrums which then creates oscillations in the fluid in our inner ear. A virus is about a million times smaller than the size of the eardrum and would hardly even sense these vibrations. There is absolutely no reason to believe that this could be true.

Myth: Religious chants can kill the virus

The same argument can be applied here as the earlier answer. The vibration created by chanting would not even be sensed by something as small as a virus. 

Myth: The whole COVID-19 situation brings order to nature and forces us to introspect

Certainly, COVID-19 reminds us that we live in an interconnected, interdependent world and that diseases caused by animal viruses crossing over to humans are at least one consequence of the destruction of natural habitats and the illegal trade in wild animals. Controlling these will ensure that we provide ourselves happier, healthier lives as well as leave the next generation a better world.