Last update: 3 April 2020
Hold your breath, drink lots of water and sunbathe? Some questionable ‘health’ advice is doing the rounds at the moment and unscrupulous sellers are also touting medicines that claim to prevent against or treat COVID-19.
Fake news about coronavirus has been spreading rapidly via email and messaging platforms, often supposedly from ‘a doctor at [hospital, country or academic institution]’, with some outlandish claims about how to cure or prevent yourself from contracting the virus.
Meanwhile a coordinated global operation to tackle the illegal sale of medicines online has uncovered a huge rise in fake medical products related to coronavirus.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) took part in the operation, which revealed a disturbing trend of criminals exploiting fears about the pandemic, and increased demand for products such as personal protection equipment and hygiene products.
Among the products seized were counterfeit face masks and unauthorised antiviral medication.
Coronavirus latest – news and advice from our money, travel and health experts
Don’t fall for fake news about Coronavirus
There has been a lot of misinformation circulating online about coronavirus, often purporting to be from medical staff at hospitals or universities, in the form of a written note or voice memo.
Some we’ve seen include variants of the same ‘advice’ from, variously: ‘a doctor at St George’s Hospital’, ‘a doctor at Stanford’ and ‘a doctor treating COVID-19 patients in Japan’.
It can be hard to separate fact from fiction as the unfounded or simply outlandish claims are mixed in with official and sensible advice such as washing your hands.
Some of the claims floating around include:
- Drinking water will ‘flush out’ the virus (FALSE) Text from one of the letters going around tells you that drinking water will flush the virus from your throat into the stomach where gastric acids can destroy it. While drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated is always important, the idea that you can remove a virus this way is unscientific. The virus can find its way into the cells of the respiratory system, as well as transmitting through the nostrils or eyes.
- Gargling with salt water or disinfectant will kill the virus (FALSE) Advice that was incorrectly attributed to a London hospital says that gargling with disinfectant ‘removes the virus before it goes down to the trachea and then to the lungs.’ This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the virus, which affects the entire respiratory system and doesn’t just lurk in the throat.
- If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, you don’t have COVID-19 (FALSE) This claim says that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds without coughing, you’re in the clear. It also suggests you do this daily and that by the time you have the officially recognised symptoms it’s ‘too late’. This is nonsense. While shortness of breath and coughing are (sometimes) symptoms of COVID-19, the ability to hold your breath for 10 seconds will vary from person to person, for a myriad of reasons. It isn’t an indicator that you do or don’t have the virus.
- The virus is killed by the sun (FALSE) Claims that the new Coronavirus ‘hates the sun’ and that therefore sunbathing can prevent you catching it are unfounded. Given the global spread of the virus so far in both hot and cold climates, there is no evidence for this. We don’t yet know if COVID-19 is a seasonal flu.
- Drinking hot water and avoiding ice or cold drinks will help (FALSE) Working on the same flawed logic of the myth above, some advice recommends constantly drinking hot drinks and avoiding ice or cold drinks. But drinking hot drinks will not change your body temperature. You cannot kill the virus once it’s in the body – your immune system just needs to fight it off.
Fake coronavirus advice example
Here’s an example of one of the fake messages currently circulating:
Myths like these can be really harmful, because they can fuel anxiety and panic, and mean that people do less of what we know actually works (such as hand washing, social distancing and avoiding touching your face).
Most of the time this advice is passed on by someone who knows someone, often with a few degrees of separation. If you can’t verify the provenance of something yourself, then don’t share it.
More facts about false claims can be found on the World Health Organization (WHO) coronavirus myth-busting page.
You can also check out our story about how to spot fake news.
Have you spotted any dodgy health advice about coronavirus? Let us know by emailing email@example.com
Unscrupulous sellers tout coronavirus ‘cures’
A global effort coordinated by Interpol known as ‘Operation Pangea’ found 2,000 online advertisements related to COVID-19, including some touting ‘coronavirus medicines’. It also intercepted more than 34,000 fake coronavirus-related products, such as ‘corona spray’.
We also spotted the sign above in a shop in London.
A Brighton man was recently charged with fraud for shipping ‘coronavirus treatment kits’ to the US, which consisted of the chemicals potassium thiocyanate and hydrogen peroxide which users were instructed to rinse their mouths with – which can be very dangerous.
If you see anywhere claiming to have a cure or treatment for coronavirus, don’t be tempted. There is currently no specific treatment or cure for COVID-19.
COVID-19 home test kits – why you shouldn’t trust anyone selling them right now
Be careful when buying medication online
While none of the coronavirus-related products found as part of the operation had reached UK borders on this occasion, the MHRA along with UK Border Force did find 871,616 doses of other unlicensed medicines valued at around £2.6m.
They also took down 294 websites and removed 1,031 social media adverts online offering medicines illegally.
Painkillers were among the medications seized in the UK, along with antidepressants and weight-loss products.
With many supermarkets and pharmacies in the UK currently running low on stocks of everyday essentials such as painkillers, it may be tempting to try your luck with online sellers – but this could be dangerous.
There’s no way of knowing what ingredients are in unlicensed medicines or what effect they might have on you. They may just not work at all, or they may contain toxic ingredients that could harm your health.
Find out more about how to spot counterfeit medicines and stay safe when buying online.