What do these things have in common?

  • Essential oil products

  • Products containing silver

  • Coronavirus Boneset Tea

  • Elderberry Tincture

  • Inhaling steam or hot air

  • Marijuana

  • Hydroxychloroquine

If you answered that all have been touted and tried as either preventative or treatment for COVID-19, you’re right. If you added that there’s no reliable evidence that any will be effective — and that some might cause harm — go to the head of the class.

“There just isn’t any scientific evidence, right now, that alternative remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19,” said Amy Versnik Nowak, associate professor in the Department of Applied Health at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Versnik Nowak
Versnik Nowak

In three separate (remote) interviews, Nowak and her colleague Jessica Hanson; and pharmacy managers at Essentia Health and St. Luke’s spoke with one voice: Extensive research is being done to find a vaccine and/or a treatment, but it will take time. In the meantime, the best preventative medicine is to actually do what you’ve been hearing over and over.

“The best way to protect yourself from the virus is washing your hands, practicing good hand hygiene and practicing social distancing,” said Courtney Murphy-Bakken, clinical pharmacist for population health at St. Luke’s.

Courtney Murphy-Bakken
Courtney Murphy-Bakken

Some of the alternative approaches have made the list — a list of firms that received warning letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week about promotion of products fraudulently advertised to fight COVID-19. Among them: products labeled to contain silver from Colloidal Vitality LLC; Silver Sol Liquid from The Jim Bakker Show; and several products from Herbal Amy Inc., including the aforementioned tea and tincture.

Those aren’t the only approaches being advocated by some but debunked by medical science experts.

Included among the rest:

Marijuana

“There are no studies or controlled trials to show that marijuana is effective at preventing or treating COVID-19,” Murphy-Bakken said.

She also cited a statement from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, saying that people who smoke marijuana or cigarettes could be seriously threatened if hit with COVID-19.

In agreement: the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“If something sounds too good to be true, it likely is,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri in a statement. “During these difficult times, we encourage people to be skeptical of any unsubstantiated claims, particularly those circulating online, surrounding the use of cannabis or any other uncorroborated treatment for COVID-19.”

A NORML news release went on to advise that marijuana users avoid “combustive smoke of any kind” since COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.

Hydroxychloroquine

Small studies are underway to see if the prescription drug that’s used to treat rheumatoid arthritis might also be effective for COVID-19, said David Sperl, pharmacy senior clinical manager at Essentia Health.

David Sperl
David Sperl

But most of the evidence for that notion so far comes from laboratory and animal studies, he said. “We are hopeful for some of that, but also, we practice evidence-based medicine, and there’s a limit of what you can learn from those types of studies.

Since hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine — used to treat malaria — are prescription medicines, some have turned to other sources for the drug, with tragic consequences. Last week, Banner Health in Phoenix reported a man had died and his wife was in critical condition after they ingested chloroquine phosphate, which is used at aquariums to clean fish tanks.

Hot air

Inhaling steam or hot air, such as from a hand dryer, isn’t a good idea, Murphy-Bakken said.

“Those things won’t kill the virus, and actually inhaling hot air could be potentially harmful,” she said. “If it’s hot enough, it could burn you.”

Such approaches stem from a misunderstanding about how COVID-19 works, Sperl said.

“Any kind of folk remedy or intervention, such as breathing in steam or drinking copious amounts of water … because of the way the virus works, we wouldn’t anticipate that any of those would have an impact on keeping people from being infected,” he said.

Faux sanitation

Don’t use UV lamps to sterilize your hands or any part of your skin, Murphy-Bakken said, because UV radiation can irritate or damage your skin. Don’t use wipes intended to disinfect surfaces on your skin. The wipes can harm your skin and cause even more harm if they get in your eyes or mouth.

“There’s no evidence at all that it’s going to help,” she said.

Resources

If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud in relation to COVID-19, report it at justice.gov/coronavirus.

Check out the “mythbusters” section at who.int/teams/risk-communication.