Health

Truths and myths: What can and can't protect you against COVID-19

There is a lot of advice floating around about what can and can't protect you from getting COVID-19. But what's true and what's not? Here are some things that experts say don't work — and some that do.

Gloves, vaccinations, UV lamps, hand dryers? Here's what the experts say

A transit rider in Vancouver wears gloves and covers her face with her scarf. Experts say gloves aren't really good protection against COVID-19. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

There is a lot of advice floating around about what can and can't protect you from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. But what's true and what's not?

Here are some things that experts say don't work — and some that do.

Things that don't actually work

Hot water

You may have read that drinking or gargling lots of hot water will flush the virus out of your throat and into your stomach where it will be destroyed by acid. However, Dr. Jerome Leis, medical director of infection prevention and control at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, told CBC's Metro Morning Monday that he isn't aware of any evidence that that works: "I certainly don't think it's being recommended by medical experts at this time." 

Hand dryers

Yes, you should dry your hands with either a towel or hand dryer after cleaning them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. But the heat from hand dryers alone don't kill the virus, the World Health Organization says.

Vaccinations for flu or pneumonia

While these will protect you against two other respiratory diseases, they don't work against the virus that causes COVID-19. That's why scientists are working so hard right now to develop and test a vaccine specifically for the illness.

Using a UV disinfection lamp

While you may have heard of ultraviolet lamps being used to sanitize hospital surfaces or phones, they shouldn't be used on your skin as the radiation they emit can cause skin irritation, WHO says.

Wearing gloves in public

Regular gloves have minute holes in them and can become contaminated after touching surfaces. That's why they're "probably not effective," Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital, recently told the New York Times.

Disposable gloves, like latex or vinyl, shouldn't have holes in theory, but experts say they could provide a false sense of security. And if you touch your face with them, then you're still at risk, says medical microbiologist Dr. Jocelyn Srigley.

The Tru-D SmartUVC disinfecting light is shown in this 2017 file photo. While ultraviolet light is used to disinfect phones and hospital equipment, it's not recommended for use on skin. (Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin/The Associated Press)

Spraying chlorine, bleach or alcohol on your body

Don't do this. While bleach can be used to disinfect surfaces, it's corrosive and can harm your mucous membranes, such as your eyes or mouth, WHO warns.

Rinsing your nose with saline regularly

While there's some evidence this can help people recover more quickly from the common cold, it hasn't been shown to actually prevent respiratory infections, WHO says.

Antibiotics

These only work against bacteria, not viruses like the novel coronavirus.

Bleach is good for disinfecting surfaces, but don't spray it on your body or gargle it, WHO says. (Scott Eells/Bloomberg)

Vitamin C

While many people think vitamin C prevents respiratory diseases, like colds, Health Canada doesn't allow manufacturers to claim that, as there simply isn't enough scientific evidence.

Likewise, there's no evidence that vitamin C helps with COVID-19. Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University, told the New York Times that if there's any benefit, it's going to be "very modest."

Other supplements and naturopathic remedies

The College of Naturopathic Physicians of B.C. has issued a notice to the public, saying that "any statements by naturopathic doctors about the prevention and/or treatment of COVID-19, beyond the information made available by the public health authorities, are inappropriate, potentially harmful, and likely to violate" the college's policies on false and misleading advertising. 

It comes after a local city councillor and naturopath shared suggestions to "strengthen our [immune] systems" amid the pandemic.

Eating garlic

According to WHO, garlic may have some antimicrobial properties, but there's no evidence that eating it has protected people from COVID-19.

Hand dryers alone don't prevent you from getting COVID-19, but it is recommended that you dry your hands after washing thoroughly with soap and water, which does wash the virus off your hands. (Doug Ives/The Canadian Press)

Things that work — to some extent

Face masks

If you're sick, a face mask can reduce the chance you'll pass the illness onto others — but experts caution that it won't necessarily protect you from catching COVID-19, as masks don't cover your eyes and may cause you to touch your face to put it on, take it off or adjust it. If you are healthy, WHO recommends you use a mask only when caring for someone with a COVID-19 infection

WATCH | Will wearing a mask protect you from the coronavirus?

You see more people wearing them in public, but will wearing a face mask really protect you from the coronavirus?    2:27

Hand sanitizer

Hand sanitizer will typically kill viruses, like the novel coronavirus, if it's at least 60 per cent alcohol. But "washing your hands [with soap and water] is always better," York University biology professor Dawn Bazely said in a recent interview with CBC News.

Things that will actually work

Handwashing

According to the World Health Organization, this is the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19. The virus causes infection when it enters your eyes, mouth or nose — usually from you touching your face with your hands. If you wash the virus off your hands, that won't occur.

WATCH | Handwashing put to the test:

Using “glo germ,” a product that shows up under black light, Andrew Chang takes a first-hand look at how germs are transmitted, and how to wash them off our hands effectively. 7:03

Social distancing

The disease is transmitted from other people via droplets that can be sprayed up to two metres when a person sneezes or coughs. Or via the things that people touch, such as surfaces or each others' hands. By minimizing your contact with other people and staying at least one to two metres away, you can also reduce the risk of transmission.

Experts also say people should self-isolate at home if they feel unwell. And everyone should practise good respiratory hygiene, such as sneezing or coughing into a bent elbow or tissue (and then disposing of that tissue immediately).

And if you already have COVID-19...

In addition to continuing to practise the good hygiene measures outlined above to avoid passing on the virus, you can also treat the fever with ibuprofen and other drugs typically used for fevers.

Previously, there had been some caution against using ibuprofen to ease symptoms of the disease, but WHO said there's no evidence to suggest that using ibuprofen to manage symptoms of COVID-19 will worsen the condition.

Further, if you have symptoms of the illness, the first step is to contact your health-care provider or local public health agency. Do not show up unannounced at a clinic or hospital. However, if you have a sharp turn in your condition, including shortness of breath, call 911 or your local emergency number.

About the Author

Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.

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