A leading asthma patient group has issued a warning against an unproven coronavirus treatment circulating on social media that is leading some people to post videos of themselves breathing in hydrogen peroxide through a nebulizer.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America called the practice "concerning and dangerous" in a Tuesday blog post, emphasizing that it will neither treat nor prevent the virus and is harmful to the lungs.
"DO NOT put hydrogen peroxide into your nebulizer and breathe it in. This is dangerous!" the foundation wrote.
Coronavirus misinformation has proliferated on social media throughout the pandemic even as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all taken steps to ban it. That includes unproven claims that hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, or ivermectin, which is used to kill parasites in animals and humans, could cure the virus. Some experts, including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, contend that such misinformation was partly responsible for Americans refusing the vaccines, leading to avoidable illness and deaths.
Hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic more commonly used to prevent infection from minor cuts, burns and scrapes. It is also used as a tooth whitener in some toothpastes, and as a common household cleaning agent. But it can be poisonous to humans if swallowed in strong enough concentrations. The AAFA advises against inhaling it in through a nebulizer, a relatively cheap medical machine which turns medications into breathable mist.
But those recommendations have not stopped some people from using hydrogen peroxide in a nebulizer and documenting the experience online. Melanie Carver, chief mission officer at AAFA, said the group has tracked related misinformation on Facebook, YouTube and TikTok posts that are reaching hundreds of thousands of views. A now-deactivated TikTok account titled "h202therapy" showed a video of a child on a nebulizer with a caption suggesting hydrogen peroxide was being used, Carver said.
"Before this information spreads further, we want people with asthma to know how important it is to only use their prescribed asthma treatments in their nebulizers," Carver said in an email.
Throughout the pandemic, a cottage industry of online businesses and naturopathic treatment centers has pushed a range of bogus coronavirus treatments.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has sent hundreds of warning letters to organizations promoting unproven coronavirus treatments involving things like elderberry, iodine, mushrooms, and even horse milk.
Hydrogen peroxide figures prominently in several of them. Dr. Brownstein's Holistic Medicine in Michigan received a warning over a treatment involving iodine, hydrogen peroxide and vitamins. A California-based business called Gordon Medical has advertised an in-office nebulized hydrogen peroxide treatment for both preventing and treating the virus. A Nevada-based business called StuphCorp has recommended "nebulizing hydrogen peroxide during this pandemic," according to the FTC.
A wide range of sources appear to be promoting hydrogen peroxide specifically, but it's unclear what is driving the social media trend.
When asked where the misinformation appears to be originating, an AAFA representative cited an businessman and osteopathic physician named Joseph Mercola. In April 2020, Mercola posted a video saying "hydrogen peroxide treatment can successfully treat most viral respiratory illnesses, including coronavirus," according to the advocacy group Center for Countering Digital Hate. It was shared on Facebook 4,600 times, the group said.
In an email, Mercola said: "The solution you are referring to is primarily saline, with highly diluted hydrogen peroxide. It is important to ensure that people use saline to dilute the hydrogen peroxide to .1%; 30X lower concentration than standard peroxide found at the local pharmacy. High concentrations of hydrogen peroxide should not be used."
In response to Mercola's comment, the AAFA's Carver emphasized that coronavirus patients should only be using prescribed treatments, and noted that the recommendation to nebulize hydrogen peroxide could be particularly dangerous for people with asthma.
"There are different concentrations available for purchase, and people may be using dangerous concentrations of hydrogen peroxide in an attempt to protect themselves from COVID-19," Carver said in an email.
Mercola's support for a hydrogen peroxide-based treatments appear to predate the pandemic. In a 2006 YouTube video, which has 1.4 million views, Mercola described Hydrogen Peroxide as a "simple trick to treat the cold or flu."
In a different video from April 2020, now taken off of YouTube but archived on the website BitChute, Mercola describes how to nebulize hydrogen peroxide.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said he blames Mercola for advancing hydrogen peroxide as a coronavirus treatment. He called hydrogen peroxide "a really volatile chemical and a bleaching agent," and expressed concern that even saline-diluted solutions could be harmful if used instead of legitimate treatments or vaccines.
"This is not just about the primary effect of telling people that hydrogen peroxide can affect covid, it means people will reject other therapies when they are in trouble," Ahmed said. "It means people get sick and, rather than getting the treatment they need, they will start looking on Amazon for a nebulizer and hydrogen peroxide."