Wearing a mask to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a man smokes a cigarette in Washington, DC on April 7, 2020. (Saul Loeb / AFP)

These 10 tips for preventing COVID-19 contain false information

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Social media posts shared thousands of times advocate 10 methods to prevent a novel coronavirus infection, citing recommendations allegedly stemming from autopsies on COVID-19 victims, including in China, where the virus first emerged. The advice is misleading; experts say the list includes half-truths and outright falsehoods.

“Doctors are reporting they now understand the behavior of the COVID 19 virus due to autopsies that they have carried out,” begins a March 31, 2020 Facebook post, followed by the alleged tips for avoiding the virus.

Variations on the list of misleading advice also appear on Facebook here, here and here, on Twitter here and here, on Instagram here and Reddit here, and have been circulating since at least March 21, 2020.

An audio version of the post claims the advice originated from Hospital Doctor Negrin, a public hospital on the Spanish Canary Islands. The hospital has yet to respond to a request for comment. 

A screenshot of a misleading Facebook post taken April 8, 2020

AFP Fact Check breaks down the misleading tips below.

Frequently drinking hot liquids will neutralize the virus: False

“Drink lots of hot liquids - coffees, soups, teas, warm water. In addition take a sip of warm water every 20 minutes bc this keeps your mouth moist and washes any of the virus that’s entered your mouth into your stomach where your gastric juices will neutralize it before it can get to the lungs,” the list recommends.

This is false.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) tweet from February 20, 2020: “While staying hydrated by drinking water is important for overall health, it does not prevent coronavirus infection.”

A screenshot of a World Health Organization tweet taken on April 7, 2020

AFP has previously addressed this issue in fact checks here and here.

Gargling with an antiseptic will protect against the novel coronavirus: False

“Gargle with an antiseptic and warm water like vinegar or salt or lemon every day if possible,” the second tip on the list says.

AFP has previously addressed this issue in a fact check here, which found the claim to be false.

The official recommendations of the WHO, as well as those of the health authorities in the United States, Canada, UK and Australia, do not list gargling as a treatment for COVID-19.

“While some western, traditional or home remedies may provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of COVID-19, there is no evidence that current medicine can prevent or cure the disease,” the WHO’s website says.

Brandon Brown, a professor at the University of California Riverside’s Center for Healthy Communities, told AFP by email that gargling with warm water is a common remedy for sore throat symptoms, not for the novel coronavirus in particular.

The virus lingers in clothes but can be killed by soap and sunlight: Partly False

“The virus attaches itself to hair and clothes. And detergent or soap kills it but you must take bath or shower when you get in from the street. Avoid sitting down in your home and go straight to the shower. If you cannot wash your clothes daily, hang them in sunlight which also helps to neutralize the virus,” the post reads.

This is partly false.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website advises cleaning laundry according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and using the warmest possible water temperature.  

When laundering a sick person’s clothing, the CDC advises using disposable gloves, cleaning and disinfecting hampers and avoiding shaking the laundry.

While soap is indeed effective, hanging the clothes in sunlight will not “neutralize the virus.”

AFP has reported that while ultraviolet (UV) light can be used at extremely high intensities as a disinfectant, everyday UV emitters, such as the sun, only release low levels of UV light.

“Ultraviolet is able to kill COVID-19 if it is exposed to the concentrated UV ray in a certain amount of time and distance,” Dr. Pokrath Hansasuta, an assistant professor of virology in Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University Department of Microbiology, told AFP by phone.

“However, that level of UV exposure is harmful to human’s skin. Most likely, it will be in the light bulb or lamp as the natural UV from the sun is not strong enough to kill it.”

The virus lingers on metal surfaces for up to nine days: False

“Wash metallic surfaces very carefully bc the virus can stay viable on these for up to 9 days. Take note and be vigilant about touching hand rails, door knobs, etc. and keep these clean,” the post reads.

This is false; a recent study showed the new coronavirus was detectable for up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel -- not nine days, as the post claims.

The data comes from a US government-funded paper published March 17, 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and based on a study carried out by scientists from the CDC, University of California, Los Angeles, and Princeton, AFP reported.

The CDC recommends disinfecting hard surfaces with a US Environmental Protection Agency-approved product, such as those listed here.

Smoking increases risk of infection: True

“Don’t smoke,” reads the list of tips to prevent the virus. This is true.

“Smoking damages your lungs and other parts of your body, and it makes you more vulnerable to #COVID19 infection,” the WHO said in a March 26, 2020 tweet.

AFP has previously addressed this issue in a fact check here.

A screenshot of a World Health Organization tweet taken April 7, 2020

Wash your hands for 20 seconds every 20 minutes: Partly True

“Wash your hands every 20 minutes with any soap that foams and do this for 20 seconds,” the list advises.

This is partly true; clean hands help stop the spread of germs, but the CDC does not specify that soap must foam to be effective, nor does it direct people to wash their hands every 20 minutes. 

The CDC recommends washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water under various circumstances, including before preparing food and after blowing your nose and sneezing.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people should also take care to wash their hands thoroughly after being in a public place or before touching their eyes, nose or mouth, the CDC website says.

A screenshot of World Health Organization instructions on proper hand washing technique taken April 7, 2020

Eat healthful foods: True

“Eat fruits and vegetables. Try to elevate your zinc levelS,” the list reads.

Dr. Margaret Harris, a WHO spokeswoman, said that while she considers many of the other tips on the list a mix of half-truths and myths, the WHO supports eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

Animals can’t spread the novel coronavirus: Insufficient Evidence

“Animals do not spread the virus to people. Its a person to person transmission,” the post reads.

Experts say there is not enough evidence to confirm the statement at this time.

“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in animals,” the WHO website reads. “Possible animal sources of COVID-19 have not yet been confirmed.”

The CDC website says that although the first COVID-19 infections were linked to a live animal market, the virus is now primarily spreading from person to person.

“We do not have evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19 to people or that they might be a source of infection in the United States,” the website says.

Getting the flu, eating cold things weakens your system: Partly False

“Try to avoid getting the common flu as this already weakens your system and try to avoid eating and drinking any cold things,” the list reads.

This is partly false.

“We do… say try to avoid getting seasonal influenza by getting vaccinated, though with health services now overwhelmed that’s not something easily done if people have not had their jab already,” Harris said in an email.

However, just as drinking warm water will not protect you from the disease, drinking or eating cold items will not put you at risk.

Brown said that there is “no need to change the temperature of your drinking water.”

Also, “the temperature of your food (cold or hot) has nothing to do with protecting yourself from COVID-19. More important is to have a balanced diet no matter the food temperature, and to be aware of how your food is handled prior to consumption,” he said.

Virus ‘sits’ in the throat before passing into the lungs: False

“If you feel any discomfort in your throat or a sore throat coming on, attack it immediately using the above methods. The virus enters the system through the throat but will sit in the throat for 3-4 days before it passes into your lungs,” the post says.

But “symptoms only happen once the virus is already replicating and overwhelming the immune system, so the virus does not sit in the throat for 3-4 days doing nothing,” according to Brown. 

The WHO says the COVID-19 incubation period, which is the time between catching the virus and showing symptoms of the disease, ranges from one to 14 days, but is most commonly around five days.

Hold your breath to test for infection: False

Some versions of the list include an additional tip: “Experts suggest doing this simple verification every morning: Breathe in deeply and hold your breath for 10 seconds. If this can be done without coughing, without difficulty, this shows that there is no fibrosis in the lungs, indicating the absence of infection.”

AFP has previously addressed this issue in a fact check here, which found the claim to be false.

Contacted by AFP, Fernando de la Hoz, an epidemiologist at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, said claims that holding one's breath to test for “fibrosis” were incorrect.

“There is not enough time for the patient to develop fibrosis” in cases of COVID-19, he said. “It is a lung disease caused by chronic exposure, sometimes for years, to industrial pollutants.”

And Karla Ronchini, infectologist at Brazil’s Gaffree e Guinle University Hospital, told AFP that it is simply “not a method” to test for COVID-19.

AFP Fact Check has debunked more than 270 examples of false or misleading information about the novel coronavirus. A complete list of our fact checks on the topic in English can be found here.

UPDATE: This article was updated on April 9, 2020 to include information about false claims that
holding your breath is a test for a novel coronavirus infection.