As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continues to rise around the globe, one of the top questions people are asking is: what can be done to prevent it from spreading?
While official guidance in the UK recommends that people wash their hands regularly, maintain space or social distancing of two metres and wear a face mask as to protect themselves and others, some experts have suggested oral hygiene could also play an important role in preventing spread.
This is because most toothpastes and mouthwashes contain detergents with anti-viral qualities, similar to those in hand sanitisers, which they say could impact the ability of the virus to spread.
But, can upping the number of times you brush your teeth every day really make a difference? Here is everything you need to know.
How does coronavirus spread?
According to the NHS, coronavirus spreads in much the same way as the common cold or flu - through infected respiratory droplets like coughs and sneezes – and passes from person to person.
This can happen when an infectious person gets the virus on their hands and then touches a commonly used surface, such as a door handle, which someone else then touches or when a person gets close to (less than one to two metres) someone who is infectious.
Why do some experts say toothbrushing can prevent Covid-19 from spreading?
According to Professor Martin Addy, a dentistry professor at the University of Bristol, brushing your teeth whenever you leave home could help ward off Covid-19.
This, he says, is because most toothpastes contain the same detergents as antibacterial hand gels and, as the virus is most commonly spread by salvia and cough droplets, this could help kill germs before they have a chance to move on.
“Toothpaste contains the same detergents as those found in handwash gels recommended.
'The antimicrobial action of toothpaste in the mouth persists for three to five hours and, thereby, would reduce the viral load in saliva or infection by viruses entering the mouth,” he told The Telegraph.
“For the vast majority, the timing of tooth brushing should be focused when they are about to go out of their homes for exercise or shopping. Ideally, tooth brushing frequency should be increased.”
Michael Lewis, a professor of oral medicine from Cardiff, agrees and says spending four minutes a day on cleaning your teeth “has never been so important.”
“Research has demonstrated that poor oral hygiene is an important factor that could influence occurrence of respiratory infection,” he said. "This is especially relevant at this time of the Covid-19 pandemic. The public needs to appreciate the benefit of good oral hygiene.
”Covid-19 spreads via saliva and this is the basis of the need for social distancing. Toothpastes and mouthwashes contain substances, similar to those in hand sanitizers, that have antiviral actions and these could also impact the ability of the Covid-19 to spread which is obviously an additional benefit of a good oral hygiene regimen.”
Has this been proved?
Despite claims from experts that antibacterial agents in toothpaste could help eliminate the coronavirus if it enters the body via the mouth, this has not yet been proven or endorsed by bodies like the NHS or World Health Organisation (WHO).
Speaking to The Independent, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the theory would be hard to verify.
“I think proving that regular brushing of teeth does or does not protect against Covid-19 (and I personally doubt that it does have any useful effect) would be very difficult,” he said. “This brings back memories of some senior politician or other suggesting disinfection as a cure/prevention strategy and that was roundly dismissed by the medical community at the time.”
What do other experts say?
Professor Hunter adds that while brushing your teeth is always a good idea, suggesting it would protect against Covid-19 is “pushing it a bit far”.
“Whilst I cannot say for certain that there would be no effect whatsoever, I do not think it likely that teeth brushing would make that much difference,” he explained. “Firstly droplets can and do infect through the nose and can be inhaled directly to the back of the throat and deeper into the respiratory tract so any residual disinfection around the teeth is very unlikely to have much if any benefit.
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“The other issue is that viruses are intracellular pathogens and once taken into a cell are protected from any surface disinfection so any disinfectant would have to kill a virus very quickly before the virus is taken into a cell.”
Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, agrees, stating that evidence surrounding the idea is limited.
“There has been a long interest in oral health care in patients who are hospitalised with pneumonia, and that includes brushing of the patients teeth along with use of antiseptic mouthwashes,” he told The Independent.
“In relation to the pneumonia, the evidence base at the moment suggests little benefit from tooth-brushing of seriously ill patients. The use of toothpaste or mouthwash as a way to reduce Covid-19 across the community in non-hospitalised has also been raised previously, but at the moment it remains just a theory.”
What are the best ways to protect yourself from Covid-19?
Health officials say the best protection from coronavirus is to regularly wash your hands with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, hand sanitiser gel can be used until you can get to a sink. People are encouraged to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds.
If you sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve – not your hands – and put used tissues in the bin immediately.
In England, it is mandatory to wear a face mask in a number of places, including in a shop, on public transport and inside hospitality venues when you are not eating or drinking - for example walking to your table or the toilet.
You should also try to avoid close contact with people who are ill.
Anyone who is displaying symptoms or has tested positive for coronavirus is urged people to self-isolate for 14 days.
You can read more about preventing the spread of coronavirus here.