Why Doctors Warn Against Using Betadine to Prevent COVID-19

The viral claim won't protect you against COVID-19—but it might lead to some other unwanted health issues.

From hydroxychloroquine and veterinarian doses of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin, questionable—and potentially harmful—treatments for COVID-19 have circulated the internet. One misinformed trend, gargling Betadine to prevent COVID-19 infection, allegedly started on Twitter.

On September 8, 2021, a Twitter user who claimed to be an emergency room doctor tweeted: "Don't get Covid. Prophylaxis is not that hard. Also nasal spray with a couple of drops in it, and gargle with original Listerine." The tweet has since been removed from the platform, and the user's account has been suspended.

While advice about gargling Betadine or adding it to nasal spray gained traction in groups of people against taking vaccines, infectious disease experts say iodine isn't a safe or reliable way to prevent getting sick with COVID-19.

Here's what you need to know about Betadine—and why doctors don't want anyone to start gargling or using it in a nasal spray in hopes of preventing COVID-19.

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What Exactly Is Betadine?

Betadine is the brand name for a chemical compound called povidone-iodine (PVP-I) or iodopovidone. "It's a brownish liquid solution that's often used as a topical antiseptic—it can sterilize routine cuts and scrapes, or clean skin before stitches or surgical procedures," Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Health.

Betadine also has an antiseptic throat gargle made with 0.5% PVP-I, but it's only meant to treat and relieve symptoms of a sore throat. There are also medicated douches—made with 0.3% povidone-iodine—to help relieve minor vaginal irritation and itching.

Can Betadine Help Prevent COVID-19 at All?

It's not clear where the idea that Betadine could potentially prevent COVID-19 came from in the first place. "[T]here's no reliable data" to suggest that povidone-iodine can help prevent COVID-19 or its spread, Cassandra M. Pierre, MD, MPH, an infectious disease physician and the medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, told Health in September 2021. However, research concerning its efficacy has been growing but mixed.

Researchers from a November 2021 study published in the Japanese Dental Science Review explored the efficacy of PVP-I gargle in decreasing COVID-19 transmission risk. They looked at the evidence of the gargle's virus-killing aspects in relation to COVID-19. With that evidence, they endorsed the use of a diluted gargle (0.5% PVP-I) as a preventative measure when it comes to COVID-19.

A January 2022 study from the Journal of Hospital Infection also indicated that gargling with PVP-I resulted in salivary SARS-CoV-2 suppression for 60 minutes. However, a limitation of this study was that there was no control group for the study and that the findings might be more suited for short-term use by medical providers—namely, dentists or physicians who needed to perform an oral examination.

The efficacy of PVP-I in nasal form was also a point of exploration. Researchers of a November 2021 study in Laryngoscope discovered that there was a SARS-CoV-2 viral load reduction in all individuals from the study. The participants used placebo (saline), low-concentration PVP-I, and high-concentration PVP-I nasal sprays. However, there was not a significant difference in the viral reduction between the different groups.

Doctors don't recommend the general use of Betadine to prevent or treat COVID-19. Further, Betadine's manufacturer, Avrio Health, has also warned customers against using Betadine to prevent COVID-19. A statement has been included on Betadine's official website indicating that the sore throat gargle, as well as the first aid products, have not been approved to treat COVID-19.

Are There Any Dangers of Using Betadine as a Gargle or Nasal Spray?

Ingesting povidone-iodine can pose health risks. According to Dr. Adalja, povidone-iodine is commonly used for a gargle for sore throats, but accidentally ingesting it—whether you swallow it by mouth or put it up your nose and it drips down your throat—could cause gastrointestinal upset. If too much is swallowed, you'll need to seek medical attention or contact a Poison Control Center.

"High doses of povidone-iodine could also cause kidney problems," added Dr. Adalja, along with potentially interfering with thyroid function. Furthermore, according to Dr. Pierre, "it may tarnish the color of a person's mucus membranes and skin, and even cause pulmonary irritation and shortness of breath."

There is, of course, another danger too: It's that people are using remedies like povidone-iodine instead of the vaccine—which is proven to work. "It's odd because there's so much evidence for the vaccine, but people are turning to povidone-iodine…" said Dr. Adalja.

The best, safest evidence-based methods for preventing COVID-19 (and staving off severe disease and hospitalization) remain to be vaccination and masking. "People are looking for a quick and easy fix," said Dr. Pierre. "But the quick and easy preventative measure that's actually safe and proven is getting the vaccine and continuing to wear a mask."

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