Health and Science

Don't hold your breath. Experts debunk dangerous myths about the coronavirus

Key Points
  • Disinformation and false remedies have been making their rounds on social media and digital platforms as the world clamors for more information about the mysterious disease which has killed more than 233,000 and infected over 3.25 million people globally.
  • Consuming and spraying alcohol all over yourself, as well as being exposed to strong sunlight will not protect you from the coronavirus, according to experts.
  • 5G networks do not spread the virus, and being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds without discomfort or coughing is not a test for the coronavirus.
A doctor provides care to a patient in a hotel converted into a makeshift hospital for patients infected with coronavirus, in Chelles, near Paris, on April 22, 2020.
LUCAS BARIOULET | AFP via Getty Images

The fight against the coronavirus pandemic is as much about dispelling fake news and debunking conspiracy theories, as it is a global health crisis.

Disinformation and false remedies have been making their rounds on social media and digital platforms as the world clamors for more information about the mysterious disease which has killed more than 233,000 and infected over 3.25 million people globally. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the fight against the coronavirus is now an "infodemic" of misinformation.  

UN secretary general tweet:

"There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the Covid-19 crisis," said Guy Berger, director for policies and strategies in communication and information at UNESCO, according to an article on the U.N. website earlier this month.  

Believing and acting on false information can be gravely dangerous.

After U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that consuming or injecting disinfectants could help fight Covid-19, health experts fired back swiftly and warned that such unsound medical advice "could seriously harm people." Trump later tried to walk back on those comments.

Experts who spoke to CNBC debunked the following myths about the coronavirus that are spreading. 

Will strong sunlight protect me from Covid-19?

No, exposing yourself to the sun — or to temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) will not stop you from contracting the disease, according to the World Health Organization.

The virus can be transmitted anywhere, even countries with hot and humid weather, WHO said.

Much of Southeast Asia has a tropical climate. But the region has not been spared from a surge in coronavirus cases — Singapore has more than 16,000 cases while Indonesia has nearly 10,000 reported infections, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

In the Saudi Arabia, where the desert sun can get hotter than 50°C (122°F) at the peak of summer, more than 21,000 cases have been reported, according to Hopkins.

Extreme heat can kill the virus, but that degree of heat will also kill the person, said Dr. Leong Hoe Nam, infectious disease specialist from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, in an email to CNBC. He said 90°C of heat for 15 minutes will effectively destroy the virus, but no human can survive the intensity of that level of heat either.

Conversely, "there is no reason to believe that cold weather can kill the new coronavirus or other diseases. The normal human body temperature remains around 36.5°C to 37°C, regardless of the external temperature or weather," said the WHO.

VIDEO3:1303:13
Pres. Trump's suggests studying UV light, disinfectants to treat Covid-19

Trump had also speculated that exposing people to "ultraviolet or just very powerful light" could help kill the coronavirus, but experts warned about its dangers.

While the virus is susceptible to ultraviolet (UV) light which can make it harder for the virus to reproduce, you can't possibly get UV light inside your body, as it will be blocked by your skin, explained Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center, during a video interview with CNBC.

All that UV light will do is to increase the risk of skin cancer, Offit said.

Can I drink vodka or whiskey to wash out the coronavirus?

Just last month, hundreds of people in Iran reportedly died after ingesting methanol — a false remedy for Covid-19 that was spreading through social media. The number of deaths as a result of ingesting methanol has since risen to 700, according to a recent report by the Associated Press.

While alcoholic beverages, including vodka, could make you "a little drunk," they are not useful for treating the virus or for preventing the virus infection, William Schaffner, Vanderbilt University professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases, told CNBC

He added that alcoholic beverages would be of no effect on the coronavirus, or any other virus. "It doesn't make any sense to try to wash out the virus at all, or even to rinse out the mouth with ... an alcoholic beverage."  

You can never consume enough alcohol to kill all the virus in your body without first killing yourself.
Paul Offit
director of the Vaccine Education Center

Other experts warned that trying to kill the coronavirus with alcohol could come at the expense of one's own life. 

"Alcohol kills the virus. But at very high concentrations that will scald ... the lining in your mouth, your nose and your throat. You certainly kill the virus but you kill yourself too," Leong said. 

Offit concurred, adding that "you can never consume enough alcohol to kill all the virus in your body without first killing yourself." 

Apart from consuming alcohol, spraying alcohol or disinfectants all over the body would not help kill the coronavirus either, according to experts. 

"Alcohol is useful as a hand disinfectant, a hand sanitizer — but taking it either internally or over the body is not useful at all," Schaffner said.   

Instead, experts recommend good hand hygiene, including washing hands with soap and water several times a day, as well as the use of hand sanitizers. 

Does it mean I don't have the virus if I can hold my breath for 10 seconds without discomfort or coughing?

Another dangerous claim that's spreading on social media is a so-called self-check test which falsely claims that people who are able to hold their breaths for 10 seconds, without coughing or discomfort, do not have the virus infection. The false claims have been spreading on Facebook and Twitter.

Dr. Faheem Younus, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, debunked that myth. "Most young patients with Coronavirus will be able to hold their breaths for much longer than 10 seconds. And many elderly without the virus won't be able to do it," he tweeted.

Dr Younus tweet

The World Health Organization pointed out, "The best way to confirm if you have the virus producing COVID-19 disease is with a laboratory test. You cannot confirm it with this breathing exercise, which can even be dangerous."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are two kinds of tests available: viral tests and antibody tests. A viral test allows you to determine if you presently have the infection, while an antibody test shows if you have been previously infected before.

Was the virus caused by 5G networks? 

Cell towers in the U.K. were torched earlier this month, after conspiracy theories flooded Facebook claiming the coronavirus outbreak was caused by 5G, the next generation of mobile internet. 

Viruses cannot travel via radio waves or mobile networks, the WHO said. 

"The virus is extremely sneaky and has exceeded all expectations of other viral infections, but they have not learned the skill of teleportation via the electric cables — and certainly not true electromagnetic waves via the 5G," said Leong from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital. 

"There's nothing electronically that transmits the virus, it's very simple — (it's caused by) person-to-person transmission and ... (through) inanimate environment like tables, doorknobs and things like that, that's why we like to disinfect the inanimate environment around us," Schaffner said.

An infected person — who may or may not show any symptoms of flu — breathes out the virus through droplets, typically in a cough or a sneeze. The virus can settle on an inanimate surface somewhere and other people could pick it up on their fingertips or hands, infecting them after they touch their noses or mouths, Schaffner explained.