During periods of stress and uncertainty — like the current coronavirus outbreak — we naturally gravitate towards any information that has the potential to make us feel more in control. An unfortunate side effect of this is how easily misinformation spreads because of how thirsty we are for any intel that could give us an advantage. In our current pandemic situation, this has taken the form of alleged “cures” or “treatments” for the novel coronavirus.
We get it: you’re scared — we are too. So when your aunt’s friend’s nephew who she claims is a doctor, forwards an email made to look like it was written by experts at Johns Hopkins University with insider information on how to stop or beat the virus, it’s understandable that you click on, repost or forward it. To its credit, Facebook — typically a haven for conspiracy theories and incorrect information — has started cracking down on posts that are spreading false claims about the virus, redirecting users who click on these posts to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “myth busters” page.
But there’s plenty of harmful fake facts floating around elsewhere. Now is the time to improve your information literacy, checking that any claims you’re taking seriously came from a reputable source. But to make things a little easier, we’ve put together a list of some of the most common coronavirus myths that could hurt you or your family. There’s plenty more than this out there, but it’s a start.
Myth: Using a saline rinse can prevent coronavirus infection
Nope, this is not a thing, according to the WHO who says that there is no evidence that rinsing your nose with saline solution could prevent you from getting infected with the novel coronavirus. This myth has been around for quite a while, but usually in the context of treating the common cold. There is limited research indicating that using a saline spray could potentially shorten the length of a cold, but no evidence on it preventing respiratory infections.
Myth: Listerine kills the virus
Chances are decent that someone in your life either reposted or forwarded you an email providing an “excellent summary” of COVID-19 advice, allegedly put out by Johns Hopkins University. First of all, this absolutely did not come from anyone at the prestigious university and research hospital. (Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins does have an excellent coronavirus resources page with actual scientifically valid information.) One of the most popular claims on this “excellent summary” post is that Listerine — yes, the mouthwash — can help you fight the virus. As Snopes points out, this is categorically false, as is the information that this post provides: that Listerine is 69 percent alcohol, and therefore can be used as an antiseptic. Most Listerine has an alcohol content of around 27 percent, which is not close to being high enough to do anything to the virus.
Myth: Dry, warm and dehumidified environments make it harder for the virus to spread
This is another gem from the fake Johns Hopkins email, which says that COVID-19 needs “moisture to stay stable, and especially darkness. Therefore, dehumidified, dry, warm and bright environments will degrade it faster.” The president has also helped perpetuate this claim, previously stating that “when it gets a little warmer [the virus] miraculously goes away.” As great as this would be, it doesn’t appear to be the case. Because we’re still learning about the virus every day, scientists aren’t 100 percent certain how it will progress, but in a letter to the president earlier in April, the members of a National Academy of Sciences committee clarify that weather is unlikely to have a major impact, given how few people are immune to the virus right now.
Myth: Eating garlic could prevent coronavirus infection
As someone who truly loves garlic, I was hoping this one was true, but sadly, it’s not, according to the WHO. “Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties,” the organization points out. “However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.”
Myth: Hand dryers can kill the virus
Wouldn’t it be amazing if something found in nearly every public restroom could stop the coronavirus? Of course it would, but hand dryers cannot kill the coronavirus, the WHO says. Instead, the organization recommends the usual hand-washing or hand-sanitizing routine.
Myth: Taking hot baths can prevent coronavirus
There has also been a rumor swirling around that taking hot baths could prevent you from being infected by the coronavirus. But again, the WHO says this is not correct. Your normal body temperature won’t change based on taking a hot shower or bath. But what very hot water can do it burn you, so skip this one, too.
Myth: 5G networks spread the coronavirus
This is one of the newer myths that has been circulating. Basically, people think that the coronavirus is somehow able to travel via 5G mobile networks. But again, the WHO says that this isn’t true, pointing out that COVID-19 has been spreading in countries without 5G mobile networks.
How to be a smarter media consumer
As we mentioned before, it’s now more important than ever to be media literate, given that false incorrect information can literally harm you or your family. But with all the information and media coverage out there, how do you spot the fake news? Here are a few tips for being a smarter consumer of media and information:
- Always check for a link: This should be your first step. If you see a tweet, Facebook post or email forward that’s just text without any type of link to the source, you’re better off skipping it.
- Make sure the source of information is reliable: So you found a link to a source — that’s a great first step! Now, take a look to see if the site hosting the information is trustworthy. If it’s a major and respected news organization — like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN Rolling Stone or Lifehacker — you can be relatively confident that the articles are factual. News sites with a clear political bias, like Fox News, can be tricky. Ideally they would only provide fact-based information, but things can get murky because the pandemic has turned out to be very political. Also, be aware that satirical sites like The Onion publish humor articles and could be confusing to people who aren’t familiar with these sites.
- Use the SIFT method: If you’re looking for a step-by-step process for checking the credibility of a news article, you may want to try the SIFT method. This involves stopping, investigating the source, finding better coverage and tracing claims made in the article. Here’s more detailed information on this strategy.
- Get your information directly from authoritative sites: Instead of relying on social media or email forwards to get information on this global public health crisis, why not go straight to the sources. These sites are regularly updated as soon as we learn something new about the virus and are a great place to find quick, accurate information. Examples include: the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control, Johns Hopkins University and the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Global pandemic or not, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of checking news sources and developing a healthy information diet, full of credible, fact-based sources.
Looking to stock up on (a responsible amount of) essentials for quarantine? Here’s a few must-haves in case you or a loved one is sick and unable to make a supply run: