Gargling salt water does not 'kill' coronavirus in your throat

The panic around the coronavirus pandemic is the perfect breeding ground for misinformation to spread.

People around the world are being sent nonsense claims on Whatsapp by well-meaning relatives and friends, while Instagram influencers hop online to proclaim the coronavirus-defeating benefits of everything from apple cider vinegar (no, that won’t kill coronavirus) to positive thinking.

Salt water gargling is one claimed ‘remedy’ for coronavirus doing the rounds on Facebook and Whatsapp.

Along with a mock-up of the virus in someone’s throat, the fast-spreading message reads: ‘Corona virus before it reaches the lungs it remains in the throat for four days and at this time the person begins to cough and have throat pains.

‘If he drinks water a lot and gargling with warm water and salt or vinegar eliminates the virus.

‘Spread this information because you can save someone with this information.’

Essentially, someone’s claimed that gargling salt water or warm water mixed with vinegar will kill coronavirus while it hangs out in your throat, ready to be dissolved.

Sounds great, right? You can see why so many people have shared the claim.

But unfortunately it’s absolutely not true that salt water or vinegar can defeat coronavirus – and gargling with either could actually cause you harm.

The first issue with this viral message is that coronavirus doesn’t just get stuck in the throat – it quickly travels around the body.

Dr Keith Grimes, AI Clinician and GP at Babylon, explains: ‘COVID-19 is a new disease, and we still don’t fully understand how it is transmitted.

‘What we do know suggests that the coronavirus that causes it is transmitted via ‘respiratory droplets’, small amounts of infected fluid which are spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or comes into close contact with someone.

‘It enters the respiratory tract, including nose, mouth, throat and airways, and from there starts to infect the body.

‘With an incubation phase of around five days, it’s tempting to picture the virus lurking in the throat, waiting to strike.’

But that’s simply not the case – so just rinsing out your throat by gargling won’t cure you.

Dr Perpetua Emeagi, a lecturer in Human Biology and Biological Sciences at Liverpool Hope University, tells ‘Coronavirus doesn’t just live in the back of the throat – it affects the whole respiratory tract.

‘So just targeting one area of that system is not going to have any meaningful effect on either killing coronavirus or repelling it in the first instance.

‘Gargling with salt water or vinegar solution, at this point in time, is simply a futile act.’

It’s tempting to think of coronavirus as just like a cold, and thus go for all sorts of home remedies you’d usually use for the same symptoms.

Dr Grimes worries that by reaching for these techniques, people might ignore prevention methods backed up by science.

‘Given that it resembles other respiratory infections people might think to use traditional homely remedies like salt water rinses or vinegar gargles,’ he says.

‘There is some weak evidence that nose rinsing with saline can help recovery from the cold. But coronavirus is not the common cold.’

‘Not only is there no evidence that these remedies work or eliminate coronavirus, but if people believe it does work they might neglect some of the proven, recommended advice – like hand-washing, cough and sneezing into tissues and binning them, and effective social distancing.

‘For this reason false information like this can be downright dangerous.

‘For this reason doctors and scientists recommend you follow official guidance and use trusted information sources like NHS 111. At Babylon our doctors are regularly reviewing and updating the information we give our patients to make sure they are always kept up to date with safe, effective information.’

While gargling salt water won’t kill coronavirus, doing the trick might make you think it works, as your symptoms may be reduced.

It’s true that gargling with warm water and salt or vinegar can alleviate the symptoms of a sore throat, as it’s a hypertonic solution, which pulls water from the cells of the throat along with any bacteria that’s lodged there.

But there’s simply no evidence that the trick poses any actual benefits beyond this.

Dr Aragona Giuseppe, GP and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor, notes: ‘Gargling warm water with salt or vinegar unfortunately won’t get rid of the virus or stop it from reaching your lungs, which is the primary area under attack. It can be effective in soothing a sore throat for a short while, however the pain will soon come back and it is not a cure for COVID-19.’

Aragone advises us to be wary of any miracle treatment being shouted about on social media, commenting: ‘There is no specific medicine at the minute which will prevent or treat COVID-19.

‘The only advice given out at this moment in time is that people who have any symptoms of the virus, so a continuous cough or fever, should isolate themselves at home for seven to 14 days.’

Trying home remedies such as a salt water gargle won’t just fail at sorting out coronavirus – it could also cause you harm.

On the more severe end of effects, those with hypertension – abnormally high blood pressure – could see gargling salt raising their blood pressure even further.

More minor – but uncomfortable – reactions include nausea and a sore and burning throat.

To treat symptoms of a sore throat and a cough, you’re far better off staying hydrated with water (without salt or vinegar, we mean), taking paracetamol, and chatting to a pharmacist or doctor over the phone for further advice.

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