Those brown bottles of hydrogen peroxide may have been a hallmark of childhood injuries, as the colorless liquid fizzed up when it met a fresh scrape or cut.
But now, people are throwing the funky smelling antiseptic in a nebulizer — a machine that transforms it into a mist and is used by people with asthma — and inhaling it under the flawed belief that it will prevent or treat COVID-19. It’s yet another ill-suited endeavor by some people to avoid getting coronavirus vaccines, which are proven to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death.
The method, which has been gaining popularity on social media, has doctors squirming. The apparent coronavirus treatment has not been properly studied in controlled clinical trials, and the handful of studies that do exist were based on small sample sizes or assumptions and failed to conclude that the inhalation of hydrogen peroxide was the reason behind some COVID-19 patients’ recovery.
The concentrations analyzed by some experts in the past were also extremely diluted, meaning at-home attempts may be involving concentrations that are toxic to the human body.
The antiseptic can be found at grocery stores and pharmacies in low concentrations of about 3% (meaning 97% water and 3% hydrogen peroxide), which if inhaled, can irritate your airways, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. If ingested, people can experience vomiting, mild stomach irritation and swelling, and more rarely, blocked arteries in the gastrointestinal tract — even if solutions are diluted.
Hydrogen peroxide is supposed to be used as a mouthwash or topical treatment on minor cuts, but even this practice is outdated and no longer recommended. It’s also used as a bleaching and cleaning agent.
“Hydrogen peroxide has fallen out of favor as a wound cleanser,” family medicine physician Dr. Sarah Beers, told Cleveland Clinic. “Studies have found that it irritates the skin. It may prevent the wound from healing, doing more harm than good.”
Doctors explain why inhaling hydrogen peroxide is dangerous
A TikTok video that has since been deleted showed a toddler inhaling a diluted mixture of saline and hydrogen peroxide from a nebulizer. The caption said it’s a good treatment for “respiratory infections from the colds/flu to pneumonia.” User @beachgem10, who says they are a pediatric emergency doctor, made their own video to clarify some misconceptions.
“Hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic, so it really is good at killing bacteria and pathogens, however, it also causes tissue damage and death. So, if you get a wound, we actually say don’t put hydrogen peroxide on it because it’s going to kill the cells that your body needs to heal,” the pediatric doctor said.
“Nebulizers are used to get medication really deep down in the lungs by creating really tiny aerosols that when you breathe in, they get really deep down into those little alveoli,” or tiny air sacs in the lungs, they continued. “So, you are nebulizing something that could cause tissue damage and death really deep into your child’s lungs.
“Listen, if you’re going to do something that’s dangerous and stupid, that’s on you. Leave the kids out of it.”
The doctor on TikTok also noted in a separate video that “food grade” hydrogen peroxide is not edible or safe to inhale. These bottles are often in higher concentrations that can be toxic. Beers of the Cleveland Clinic said it’s called “food grade” because the food industry uses it to process and bleach certain foods.
Inhaling hydrogen peroxide can also alter your DNA, experts say.
“Hydrogen peroxide is a free radical,” an unstable atom that can damage cells, Dr. Jamie Alan, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, told Health. “If it’s inhaled, it goes to the lungs where it can damage cell membranes. It can even get into the cells once the cell membranes are compromised and it can damage DNA.”
And if you inhale too much, you may struggle to breathe and develop fluid in your lungs, Alan said.
“I’m not even sure why people have stumbled upon this. There is no evidence it can work to treat COVID-19 and it can be dangerous, especially if you have sensitive lungs,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the outlet.
People currently dealing with COVID-19 should especially avoid inhaling hydrogen peroxide, Adalja said, because they may have some inflammation in their lungs which “would then be exacerbated even more by inhaling hydrogen peroxide.”
Even the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America felt the need to step in.
“DO NOT put hydrogen peroxide into your nebulizer and breathe it in. This is dangerous!,” the group said in a Tuesday blog post. “It is not a way to prevent nor treat COVID-19. Only use asthma medicine prescribed by your doctor in your nebulizer. Other chemicals can be harmful to your lungs.”
Where did the idea of inhaling hydrogen peroxide come from?
The supposed treatment garnered some attention in April 2020 when osteopathic doctor Dr. Joseph Mercola posted a video that claimed hydrogen peroxide could treat the coronavirus, according to a 2021 report by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate.
The report lists Mercola as the No. 1 source of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation online. He joins 11 others whom researchers call the “Disinformation Dozen.” Combined, his social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have 3.6 million followers.
In response to the report, Mercola sent Time an April 2020 “letter to the editor” written by researchers from Italy and London that he said supported his claims.
The letter noted that hydrogen peroxide is already “widely used as environmental, surgical disinfectant and as an oral disinfectant in the treatment of gingivitis,” and that the antiseptic has been shown to inactivate other coronaviruses on non-human surfaces. Because of this, the researchers “proposed” hydrogen peroxide could reduce COVID-19 hospitalization rates and complications, adding that its effectiveness against the coronavirus in the mouth and nose “can be reasonably hypothesized.”
In an email to The Seattle Times, Mercola said “it is important to ensure that people use saline to dilute the hydrogen peroxide to .1%; 30X lower concentration than standard peroxide found at the local pharmacy..”
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told the outlet even saline-diluted solutions can be harmful.
“This is not just about the primary effect of telling people that hydrogen peroxide can affect COVID, it means people will reject other therapies when they are in trouble,” Ahmed told The Seattle Times. “It means people get sick and, rather than getting the treatment they need, they will start looking on Amazon for a nebulizer and hydrogen peroxide.”
A study published in July of just 23 COVID-19 patients in Mexico reported hydrogen peroxide, when drunk (concentration of 0.06%), rinsed in the mouth (1.5%) or inhaled with a nebulizer (0.2%), helped patients feel “completely better” about nine days after testing positive.
However, that’s about how long it takes for patients to naturally recover from coronavirus infection without treatments. The study also did not have a control group to compare outcomes and follow-ups were done virtually over phone calls and WhatsApp messaging.
The researchers said randomized controlled clinical trials should be done to better understand the method’s effectiveness against COVID-19, and that “it cannot be concluded that the treatment contributed to reducing the duration or severity, considering the natural history of disease.”