En español | In a matter of months, the coronavirus has swept across the globe, sickening millions and killing hundreds of thousands in its path. And just as quickly as the virus has spread, so too have falsehoods about its transmissibility and treatment. Here are 10 myths about the coronavirus that you shouldn't believe.
Summer is just around the corner, and some are hoping that the warmer weather will put an end to the coronavirus outbreak. Public health experts, however, caution that this may not be the case.
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“The science there is not as clear as it needs to be” when it comes to the weather’s impact on the speed of the virus’s spread, says Aaron Bernstein, M.D., interim director of C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And I don’t think it can be because, although we have other coronaviruses to draw inference from, we don’t have experience with this coronavirus.”
If this coronavirus acts like other coronaviruses (remember that there are several coronaviruses that can infect humans and cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses, such as the common cold), warmer temperatures and more humid weather may slow it down, Bernstein says. These viruses and others, including the bug that causes the flu, tend to spread more during cold-weather months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, “that does not mean it is impossible to become sick with these viruses during other months,” the CDC says.
“There’s some research to suggest that even at slower rates, [the novel coronavirus] is still going to be capable of exponential transmission” during summer’s warm months, explains Bernstein, pointing to places with warm-weather climates such as Singapore, India and Louisiana as examples. These areas have seen large outbreaks of infections despite their hot temperatures.
Another thing to consider? Hot weather increases the risk for hospitalization and death, especially among older adults, whose bodies have a harder time adjusting to temperature changes. This could add stress to hospitals and health care systems around the country that are already burdened with coronavirus outbreaks.
“We have to be mindful” and not rush to abandon preventive measures such as social distancing just because it’s summer, Bernstein argues. The World Health Organization (WHO) says frequent handwashing is also needed to prevent coronavirus infections, no matter how sunny or warm it is outside.
While older adults and people with chronic health conditions — including heart disease, kidney disease, lung ailments and diabetes — are at higher risk than younger, healthier people for getting severely sick from the illness caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19), they are not the only population filling hospital beds around the globe.
A mid-March analysis from the CDC found that more than half of the nearly 2,500 Americans who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 at that point were younger than 55. And while the rate of hospitalizations for COVID-19 is higher in adults 65 and older, it’s still significant in people under 65.
Jordan Warchol, an emergency physician and assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), says she has seen “several people” in their 30s and 40s become critically ill with COVID-19.
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“Even though it might happen more often to older people, that doesn’t mean that young people are immune from it,” she says. And, unfortunately, lots of people are “getting severely ill when we otherwise would not expect that because of their age.”
Even if you’ve tested positive for a past coronavirus infection, you still need to take the same precautions as everyone else, experts say. And that’s because we don’t have a definitive answer yet as to whether a previous infection provides extended immunity.
“We’re still waiting for some of the studies to come out that really tell us for sure that when you’ve had the virus and mounted an antibody to it, that you are protected,” says Roger Shapiro, M.D., associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. However, “the general feeling is that there’s a lot of optimism that this will be the case.”
In the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — two other illnesses caused by coronaviruses — infected survivors develop an immune response that can last for months to years, Shapiro points out. “So we are hopeful that [the novel coronavirus] will be the same.”
The virus’s close cousin, however — the one that causes the common cold — “is a little more tricky” because people get colds “over and over again,” Shapiro adds. “So that’s where some of the hesitation comes.”
Until the research paints a clearer picture, the CDC says everyone — including those who have had a coronavirus infection — should “continue to take steps to protect yourself and others.” This includes frequent handwashing, wearing a cloth face covering in public and keeping at least 6 feet of space between yourself and others.
While fever, cough and shortness of breath are the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, they are not the only warning signs of an infection. The CDC recently updated its list of symptoms to include chills, muscle pain, sore throat, and new loss of taste or smell. “Other less common symptoms have been reported, including gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea,” the CDC says.
The newly expanded list makes it easier to catch patients who otherwise may not have qualified for a coronavirus test, thus helping containment efforts, UNMC’s Warchol explains. It also helps the general public know “what to be on the lookout for” in respect to self-isolation as experts learn more about the virus’s impact on the body.
There is no evidence to suggest that humans are catching COVID-19 from their pets or that animals play a significant role, if any, in spreading the disease, according to the CDC. Furthermore, the CDC says there is no evidence that the new coronavirus is circulating among wildlife, including bats, in the U.S. The origin of the coronavirus is unknown, though some researchers have tied it to a live animal market in China.
However, it does appear that the illness can spread from people to animals in some rare situations, both the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say. A small number of animals worldwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, mostly after having close contact with a person with COVID-19. Because of this, public health officials say owners should make sure their pets follow some of the same preventive measures that humans practice.
For example, don’t let your pets interact with people or other animals outside the household, and avoid dog parks or other crowded areas where people and animals play. When walking your dog, keep at least 6 feet of space from other people and animals, the FDA says. And if you are sick with COVID-19, isolate yourself from other people and animals, including your pet, the CDC recommends. Instead, ask a friend or family member to care for your pet until you recover.
Other types of coronaviruses can make pets sick, such as canine and feline coronaviruses. However, “these other coronaviruses cannot infect people and are not related to the current COVID-19 outbreak,” the CDC says.
Fever and muscle pain are two common symptoms of COVID-19, and without a formally approved treatment, the CDC recommends that people with mild cases of the illness take over-the-counter medicines to help alleviate uncomfortable symptoms. But a flood of news reports in March claimed that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil), could make a case of COVID-19 worse, raising questions about the widely used drug’s safety in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Several experts, however, have since countered these claims, including the FDA. The agency said it isn’t aware of any “scientific evidence” to prove that NSAIDs could aggravate COVID-19 symptoms. In April, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) doubled down on the FDA’s stance. In its treatment guidelines for COVID-19, the agency said there is no difference between acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAIDs for reducing fever among patients with and without COVID-19, and that people with COVID-19 who are taking NSAIDs to help manage another condition “should continue therapy as previously directed by their physician.”
Whether you have COVID-19 or not, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any new medication — especially if you have underlying health conditions that can be complicated by certain drugs.
People with kidney disease or problems with stomach ulcers, for example, may be steered toward acetaminophen. “And on the flip side, if you have problems with hepatitis or liver trouble, then acetaminophen may not be the best choice,” David Aronoff, a physician and director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told AARP. “And that’s why speaking with a pharmacist or a physician or nurse can be really very helpful.”
The general advice from experts is to stay home as much as possible to limit your risk of a coronavirus infection, but that doesn’t mean you can’t garden in your yard or take a walk around the neighborhood for some fresh air and exercise. Just make sure you continue to practice precautions — bring some hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol and keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others.
It’s important to steer clear of crowded parks and group gatherings, the CDC says. And don’t forget to wear a cloth face mask when you do go out. This helps to “protect your community” in case that you unknowingly have the virus, Harvard’s Shapiro adds.
While in-person appointments at primary care offices are on pause during the pandemic, emergency rooms are still very much open. But recent data show fewer people are accessing them — and this can have deadly consequences.
A poll from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) found that 80 percent of the roughly 2,200 adults surveyed were worried that a trip to the emergency room would put them at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Nearly one-third admitted to actively delaying or avoiding medical care during the pandemic out of concern for catching the illness.
A recent survey of nine high-volume hospitals illustrates just how much of an impact virus fears have had on medical care. For example, the frequency of one common emergency procedure for reopening arteries in heart attack patients is down by nearly 40 percent since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
“COVID-19 is definitely not stopping people from having heart attacks, strokes and cardiac arrests,” the American Heart Association (AHA) and seven other national health organizations said in a joint statement. “We fear it is stopping people from going to the hospital, and that can be devastating.”
Calling 911 immediately is still your best chance of surviving a heart attack or stroke, the AHA says. Other symptoms and conditions that warrant emergency care include difficulty breathing, choking, a head or spine injury, ingestion of a poisonous substance, serious injury, uncontrolled bleeding, and any sudden or severe pain.
“If you feel like what’s going on with you or with a loved one is an emergency, please come to the emergency department,” says UNMC emergency physician Warchol. “We have plenty of measures in place to ensure your safety [with regard to] not transferring coronavirus from another patient to you.”
Disinfectants help to eliminate germs on surfaces. However, they do not treat an infection inside the body and, in fact, can cause serious harm.
In April, the CDC reported that calls to U.S. poison centers were up by about 20 percent this year, compared with last year, and that they “increased sharply” at the beginning of March, around the same time the virus started spreading in the U.S. The agency stresses that people using disinfectants should follow instructions on the label to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.
The WHO has also warned that bleach and any other disinfectant should not, “under any circumstance,” be sprayed or introduced into the body. “These substances can be poisonous if ingested and cause irritation and damage to your skin and eyes,” the organization says.
Currently there is no approved treatment for COVID-19. Several drug trials are ongoing, and one antiviral therapy, remdesivir, recently received emergency use authorization from the FDA to treat hospitalized patients.
The CDC says at this time it has no data to suggest that the coronavirus can be spread by mosquitoes or ticks. The main way the virus is thought to spread is from person to person, through respiratory droplets.
That said, mosquitoes and ticks can spread other diseases, including the Zika virus and Lyme disease. Clothing that covers your arms and legs can help minimize your risk of insect-borne illnesses — and so can insect repellents that have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).