Viral Misinformation: The Spread of False Coronavirus Claims

The stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 has many of us researching ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Unfortunately, where there’s public interest … there’s misinformation.

Scroll through any social media platform and you’ll find articles promoting foods or supplements that can “boost” or “supercharge” your immune system. What’s even more alarming is the endorsement of natural remedies to prevent or cure the coronavirus. Let’s get one thing straight, according to the World Health Organization, there’s currently no recognized treatment to prevent or cure the coronavirus.1

While COVID-19 misinformation topics grow by the day (conspiracy theories, hand dryer treatments, etc.), I’ll stick to my lane. Below are four nutrition-related areas I want to address.

1. “Boosting” Your Immune System

Here’s the tough truth: there’s no quick fix or way to supercharge your immunity. In fact, if an immune system is “boosted” or overactive, it’s considered an autoimmune disorder. Not good. The good news? For most of us, our body is well equipped to fight back against foreign invaders … if we take good care of it.

Think of it like regular maintenance for a vehicle. An oil change won’t “boost” your Prius to drive like a Bugatti. But if those oil changes are neglected, it will lead to decreased performance, reduced efficiency, and increased risk for mechanical problems.

Here’s what you can do:

Take care of your body, and it will take care of your immune system. In a recent article, I summarized five research-backed ways to support a strong immune system: (1) eat a nutritious diet, (2) stay active, (3) destress, (4) go outside, and (5) get sleep. Together, these lifestyle habits will keep your immune system naturally sharp.

2. Excessive Supplements

Dietary supplements should do exactly what their name suggests, “supplement” a diet. While a supplement certainly won’t prevent or treat the coronavirus, some can support your nutritional status, and therefore support your immune health.

Micronutrients like vitamins and trace elements are essential to immune processes, and deficiencies can increase our risk of infection.2-4 While most folks get enough micronutrients from (a healthy) diet alone, certain populations are encouraged to consider supplementation – older adults, pregnant/breastfeeding women, vegetarians, vegans, individuals with little sun exposure, and those with certain chronic diseases.  

Here’s what you can do:

Aim to eat a balanced and well-rounded diet, and use supplements to fill gaps if necessary. There is research to support the preventive effects of vitamin C and vitamin D supplementation for immune health, and zinc supplementation for shorter cold symptom duration.4-7 However, more is certainly not always better.8 Additionally, supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Therefore, their ingredients may be suspect and they may interact with medications. Always check with your healthcare provider about starting a new supplement and ask for advice on dosage and trusted brands.

3. Natural Remedies

Food is not medicine. There, I said it.

I’m all for using what nature gives us. There is research to back cold symptom relief from home food remedies like chicken soup, tea, garlic, honey, salt water, probiotics, and ginseng (perhaps an article for another day). I’d also caution against unnecessary use of antibiotics, as excessive use contributes to antimicrobial resistance.9 However, food is not medicine. Medicine is medicine. Vaccines and drugs are the products of researchers, physicians, epidemiologists, pharmacists, and other health experts. They require a rigorous development process, clinical trials for effectiveness and safety, and ultimately FDA-approval (something that your ginseng supplement just can’t claim).10,11

With the outbreak of COVID-19, many natural remedies have been promoted as alternative therapies (much different from “complementary” therapies). While foods, herbs, and spices are likely harmless, marketed supplements like colloidal silver can be dangerous.12

Can a healthy diet support a strong immune system and reduce our risk of disease? Absolutely. Can certain foods and practices ease our symptoms? For sure. Can these home remedies prevent or treat viruses like COVID-19? Absolutely not.

Here’s what you can do:

Follow the advice of the CDC. Protect yourself and others by washing your hands, wearing face masks, and social distancing. Monitor your symptoms, and seek medical attention if necessary.

4. Food Safety Practices

There have been growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus through food sources and packaging. According to the USDA, there is currently “no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19 … [it’s] thought to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby.”13

Unfortunately, this fear has led to the spread of unnecessary, and potentially unsafe, practices. Do not leave perishable foods on the porch or in the garage to air out. Food must be kept at proper temperatures and out of the “danger zone” to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Additionally, while it’s always a good idea to rinse fresh produce with cold water, do not start washing with soap. Produce can absorb soap, which can lead to toxic ingestion.

Here’s what you can do:

Perhaps, this pandemic can teach us all to be better stewards of general hygiene and food safety guidelines. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to always rinsing produce or disinfecting my grocery totes after every trip (yeah right).

But during these times, it’s more important than ever to practice the four steps of food safety: (1) clean, (2) separate, (3) cook, and (4) chill. In addition to these standard guidelines, extra precautions with COVID-19 include: (1) less (unnecessary) trips to the grocery store, (2) less time in the grocery store (bring a list and move with a purpose people), (3) washing your hands before and after trips, and (4) disinfecting your cart, store freezer doors, and reusable bags.


Slow the Spread of Fake News

Just as we can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, we can also help slow the spread of its misinformation.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Read beyond the headline. The title can be misleading based on the content of the article. Even the results of legitimate studies can be exaggerated, as the primary authors rarely write (or approve) the press release post.
  2. Have a critical eye. Does the article seem too good to be true? Does it instill intense fear? Check out the source and/or author credentials. Take a few minutes to research the claim before sharing or liking it.
  3. Report questionable or harmful articles.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay informed friends.

~ Megan


References

  1. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters. Accessed from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters.
  2. Wu D, Lewis ED, Pae M, Meydani SN. Nutritional Modulation of Immune Function: Analysis of Evidence, Mechanisms, and Clinical Relevance. Frontiers in Immunology. 2019;9(3160).
  3. Maggini S, Wintergerst ES, Beveridge S, Hornig DH. Selected vitamins and trace elements support immune function by strengthening epithelial barriers and cellular and humoral immune responses. Br J Nutr. 2007;98 Suppl 1:S29-35.
  4. Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University. Nutrition and the Immune System. Accessed from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/sites/lpi.oregonstate.edu/files/lpi-immunity-infographic_0.pdf
  5. Carr AC, Maggini S. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017;9(11).
  6. Martineau AR, Jolliffe DA, Hooper RL, et al. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. BMJ. 2017;356:i6583.
  7. Rao G, Rowland K. PURLs: Zinc for the common cold–not if, but when. J Fam Pract. 2011;60(11):669–671.
  8. Chen F, Du M, Blumberg JB, et al. Association Among Dietary Supplement Use, Nutrient Intake, and Mortality Among U.S. Adults: A Cohort Study. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2019;170(9):604-613.
  9. Llor C, Bjerrum L. Antimicrobial resistance: risk associated with antibiotic overuse and initiatives to reduce the problem. Ther Adv Drug Saf. 2014;5(6):229–241. doi:10.1177/2042098614554919
  10. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA’s Critical Role in Ensuring Supply of Influenza Vaccine. March, 2019. Accessed from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/fdas-critical-role-ensuring-supply-influenza-vaccine.
  11. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Development & Approval Process | Drugs. October, 2019. Accessed from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/development-approval-process-drugs.
  12. NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Colloidal Silver. April, 2017. Accessed from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/colloidalsilver.
  13. United States Department of Agriculture. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) FAQs. Accessed from https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus.

4 thoughts on “Viral Misinformation: The Spread of False Coronavirus Claims

  1. Hi Megan and Kathi —

    I am enjoying and learning from this newsletter and was especially happy to read this edition. It all makes sense and is vital information for those of us who can go a little batty in a crisis. My own husband has taken to using his knuckles to open cabinet doors in the house, where only three of us are living. None of us is going out often, and when we do, we are following best practices with gloves and face coverings and hand washing. I fully expect to wake up one morning and find him in a hazmat suit next to me. ; )

    I hope you and your families are well and coping as best you can right now!

    Thank you for all this important information!

    Take care!

    Jenn

    >

    Like

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