As if attempting to one-up last week’s stupidity with regards to ivermectin, anti-vaxxers on Facebook and Twitter are advocating for a new and unproven Covid-19 treatment: Betadine, an antiseptic used to treat cuts and scrapes.
Povidone iodine, often sold under the brand-name Betadine, is an iodine-based treatment largely for topical use that kills bacteria. It’s a “commonly used cleanser in the ER and OR,” says Kenneth Weinberg, an emergency room physician in New York City. “If you’re in the ER and someone has a wound to sew it up, you use it to clean with.” When told that anti-vaxxers had taken to gargling with Betadine, Weinberg said, “Fuck me! Of course they are.”
Solutions that include povidone iodine have also previously been marketed as a vaginal douche to treat itching in some countries. “We use it before surgery to clean the vagina,” says OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Gunter. “The reason it is bad in douches is that it kills the good bacteria and can be an irritant.”
Betadine is mostly intended for external use, as it can result in iodine poisoning if taken orally, says Gunter. But on social media, people are promoting it as a means of warding off the Covid-19 virus, either by gargling it or using it in a nasal spray. “Don’t get Covid. Prophylaxis is not that hard,” one person touting themselves as an ER doctor tweeted in a post that racked up almost 300 shares, along with a photo of various supplements, including melatonin and vitamin D (none of which have been proven to effectively prevent against Covid-19). “Also nasal spray with a couple of drops betadine in it. And gargle with original Listerine.” Another poster on Facebook wrote, “Gargling, nasal spray and eye drops with 1 percent providone iodine (betadine) results in dramatically better outcomes with Covid infections. I do this every time I’ve been exposed.” (This particular poster cites a 2020 paper written by a Bangladeshi plastic surgeon, one of several that investigates this question, to support this view.)
Betadine does make a diluted product, sold as a gargle to treat sore throat symptoms. But the manufacturers specifically state that it is not intended for ingestion, and that “Betadine Antiseptic products” — including the gargle — “have not been demonstrated to be effective for the treatment or prevention of Covid-19 or any other viruses.”
Needless to say, the side effects of ingesting Betadine can be nasty. Weinberg said that when he was doing his residency, he treated a patient who went into kidney failure after drinking iodine and had to be on dialysis (he eventually recovered, but only after he’d started urinating reddish-brown). “I’m sure it would cause all kinds of GI symptoms as well if you ate or drank enough of it,” he says. When asked if gargling Betadine could reduce the effects of Covid-19 or prevent transmission, Weinberg said, “Fuck no.”