Coronavirus myths debunked: Here's what you need to know

Misinformation and fear about the novel coronavirus — which was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday — have been spreading almost as quickly as the virus itself.

The coronavirus (known as 2019-nCoV), which has been traced back to Wuhan, China, has infected more than 8,200 people in mainland China alone — surpassing the deadly SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003 — and killed more than 170 people.

There have been six cases reported in the U.S. so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the five previous cases involved people who had contracted the prolific virus abroad, CDC officials said in a Thursday press briefing that the sixth infection was spread through person-to-person contact within the U.S. — in this case, a woman in her 60s who had traveled from Wuhan, China, back to Chicago and ended up infecting her husband after several days of close physical contact.

To help clear up some confusion, Yahoo Lifestyle spoke with experts to dispel several coronavirus myths.

Myth: Coronaviruses are new

While it’s true that the Wuhan coronavirus is a novel (new) strain, there are several types of coronaviruses — and chances are, you’ve already been infected with a mild strain. “The coronavirus is the same virus that causes the common cold, so it’s very common,” Purvi Parikh, MD, a pediatric allergist and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Parikh explains that the two most common viruses behind colds are coronavirus and rhinovirus. “I think many of us have been affected by a coronavirus at some point in our lives,” she says, adding, “But this one [Wuhan coronavirus] is a mutated form of it and is very severe.”

Myth: Coronavirus is deadlier than the flu

While the coronavirus is a contagious disease that is spreading quickly — Stanley Deresinski, MD, an infectious disease specialist with Stanford Health Care, told Yahoo Lifestyle that every person who is infected with the Wuhan coronavirus “is expected to infect [another] 2.5 individuals” — some experts say it may not end up being as deadly as the flu.

“Coronavirus is obviously worrisome and dangerous with about a three percent fatality rate, but in the U.S. this flu season, we’ve seen more than 8,000 flu deaths and some of those are children,” says Parikh. According to the CDC, more than 15 million Americans have been infected with the flu in the 2019-2020 season and more than 140,000 have been hospitalized with the virus.

However, Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, cautions that we don’t have all of the data yet when it comes to the coronavirus. “We don’t have a great understanding in terms of the overall severity of the novel coronavirus,” Sauer tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We don’t know who may be flying under the radar and would test positive if they were identified, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison to the flu when we have so much rigorous data on the flu.”

That said, Sauer points out that, so far, the coronavirus cases in the U.S. have been constrained to “a very minimal spread” — unlike this year’s flu season, which is shaping up to be one of the worst ones in years. With coronavirus, she says, “We’re not seeing these massive community transmission events.”

Myth: If you don’t have obvious symptoms, you can’t infect others

Common symptoms of the coronavirus include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, and in severe cases, the virus can lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death, according to WHO. But even if you’re not clearly exhibiting these symptoms it may still be possible to infect another person, reports BBC News.

According to Reuters, China’s National Health Commission minister Ma Xiaowei said, "From our observation, the disease can be spread during the incubation period. The incubation period lasts for 10 days.”

But Sauer says that more information is needed. “We need more details to determine whether or not transmitting can occur from asymptomatic individuals or while people are incubating the virus and do not have outward symptoms,” she says. “In the papers that have come out so far there’s some indication it may be possible, but we just don’t know.”

Those face masks may not help prevent a coronavirus infection. (Photo: Getty Images)
Those face masks may not help prevent a coronavirus infection. (Photo: Getty Images)

Myth: Wearing face masks can prevent infection

Face masks may be ubiquitous in China, but in the U.S., as fears of the coronavirus rise, many Americans have scrambled to buy them — so much so that they’re now selling out in drug stores and online.

But surgical face masks are not as protective against the airborne virus as people might think. “I can’t stress enough that a mask isn't required or recommended right now,” says Sauer. “And there isn’t evidence that it protects people who are not sick.”

Parikh agrees, saying, “They’re not terribly effective, especially if you have the regular paper surgical ones. These tiny droplets can still get behind the mask — it’s not like it’s an airtight seal. Many people don’t wear them properly.”

She notes the one mask hospital workers wear is the N95 respirator mask, which has a tighter seal. “But nothing is foolproof,” Parikh says. Sauer explains that you need to be “fit tested” before wearing them. “People who don’t know what size they should be wearing might buy it in the wrong size,” she says, which could compromise its effectiveness.

The best way to avoid getting sick is to wash your hands with soap and water “very frequently,” says Parikh, adding that the easiest way to spread a virus is by touching your face. Also, adds Sauer: “Stay home when you're sick and avoid mass gatherings.”

Myth: Drinking a special solution can fight the infection

There have been reports about the followers of QAnon conspiracy theories promoting drinking a concoction called Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) to avoid a host of health conditions, including the coronavirus. However, when the ingredients are mixed, they turn into “a powerful bleaching agent,” according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It should go without saying that ingesting bleach is obviously harmful, but the FDA has been warning consumers about the solution since 2010, emphasizing that MMS is “dangerous” and “potentially life-threatening.”

The agency noted it can cause “severe vomiting, severe diarrhea, life-threatening low blood pressure caused by dehydration and acute liver failure after drinking these products.”

Parkih, who strongly cautions against drinking the substance, says “there’s no scientific evidence or studies” that support its claims. “Just thinking about it doesn't make much sense,” she says. “Bleach is toxic if consumed internally.”

While it’s understandable that people are concerned about the coronavirus outbreak locally and abroad, Sauer says that there’s no need to panic. “I think it’s important to remind people that this is a respiratory or airborne virus — just like the flu in a lot of ways,” she says. “It’s different from the flu in a lot of ways, but we do know how to protect ourselves against a circulating respiratory virus.”

She adds: “In the U.S. right now we really only have six cases. Remain calm and listen to the public health advice being given.”

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