Salt water could treat Covid-19, according to scientists who will test whether the unusual remedy actually works.
Gargling salt water has been found to reduce the symptoms of coughs and colds and to stop them getting worse, researchers say.
And now they want to find out if it could help people with mild symptoms of the coronavirus, which infects the airways in a similar manner.
University of Edinburgh experts are recruiting people to take part in a study to test whether gargling with salt water could boost the body’s antiviral abilities.
Knowing how to treat Covid-19 is still a grey area for doctors, with people with mild symptoms advised to stick to paracetamol and ibuprofen.
Two antivirals have been approved for NHS use on critically-ill patients, the steroid dexamethasone, and an anti-Ebola drug remdesivir — but neither are silver bullets.
The Edinburgh scientists now want to find out if the low-cost salt water option could help people with mild infections and also stop them getting more seriously ill.
Researchers who found gargling salt water could reduce the symptoms of a cough or cold are now starting a trial to see if it helps Covid-19 patients (stock image)
The idea for the study came from ongoing research into upper respiratory infections — which commonly cause coughs and colds.
People with those illnesses were found to benefit from gargling regularly with salt water in a trial dubbed ELVIS (Edinburgh and Lothians Viral Intervention Study).
Results from the ELVIS trial, published last year, found people who gargled saline had less severe coughs, less congestion and colds that lasted two days less, on average.
They were also less likely to pass on the cold to family members, or to resort to taking medicines from a pharmacy, compared to people who did not gargle.
The Edinburgh team, whose original study included a different type of coronavirus, think the salt water could boost the body’s natural virus-fighting mechanisms, which are triggered when they get ill.
They suggested direct contact with salt has a toxic effect on the viruses themselves, or stimulates ‘innate immune mechanisms’ inside cells in the airways.
Salt may also be used by the body’s cells to create a chemical called hypochlorous acid, which is found in bleach and known to kill viruses, the researchers said.
Professor Aziz Sheikh, director of Edinburgh University’s Usher Institute, said: ‘We are now moving to trial our salt water intervention in those with suspected or confirmed Covid-19, and hope it will prove to be a useful measure to reduce the impact and spread of the infection.
HOW COULD GARGLING SALT WATER TREAT THE CORONAVIRUS?
Researchers at Edinburgh University trialled saltwater gargling and ‘nasal irrigation’ in a trial on people with upper respiratory tract infections, otherwise known as coughs and colds, and found it reduced their symptoms and the length of their illness.
Their study, published in the journal Scientific Reports last year, found 93 per cent of people said gargling reduced their symptoms, their illnesses lasted two days less, on average, and they were 35 per cent less likely to pass it on to a family member.
Scientists hope the cheap, simple therapy could have similar benefits for people with the coronavirus, reducing the severity of their cough and preventing the illness from worsening.
Explaining how the salt could achieve this effect, the study said direct contact with salt may have a toxic effect on the viruses themselves and damage or kill them.
It may also stimulate ‘innate immune mechanisms’ inside cells in the airways, they suggested, effectively boosting the body’s own ability to fight off infection.
Salt may also be soaked up and used by the body’s cells to create a chemical called hypochlorous acid which is found in bleach and known to kill viruses, the researchers said.
‘It only requires salt, water and some understanding of [gargling] procedure, so should, if found to be effective, be easy – and inexpensive – to implement widely.’
The study is open only to adults living in Scotland who have symptoms of Covid-19 or have recently received a positive test for the virus.
It is expected to operate similarly to the previous one in which some participants will gargle salt water while others down, with all of them following the same lockdown rules.
In the cough and cold study people kept diaries of their symptoms for two weeks and reported back to the scientists, who compared which group fared best.
The NHS currently only has treatments for coronavirus patients who are seriously ill, and those still do not work for everyone.
One is the steroid dexamethasone, which a study found could cut death rates in intensive care patients by up to a third.
And the second is an Ebola drug called remdesivir, which has shown promising results in shortening recovery times.
Both are approved for NHS use specifically for Covid-19 patients – for much of the UK’s outbreak doctors were limited to experimenting with whatever antiviral drugs and antibiotics they could find.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the trial success of dexamethasone – which was announced on June 16 – as the ‘biggest breakthrough yet’ in treating coronavirus.
He said at a press conference: ‘I’m absolutely delighted that the biggest breakthrough yet has been made by a fantastic team of scientists right here in the UK…
‘I think there is genuine cause to celebrate a remarkable British scientific achievement [and] the benefits it will bring not just in this country but around the world.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described the results as ‘astounding’.
Dexamethasone, first created in the 1950s, is usually given to treat ulcerative colitis, arthritis and some types of cancer. It is already licensed and proven to be safe, meaning it can be used in human patients immediately, and is a generic drug, meaning it can be manufactured cheaply and en masse by companies all over the world.
Results of the RECOVERY trial, which involved 6,000 Covid-19 patients and was led by Oxford University scientists, suggest the steroid can prevent death in one in eight ventilated coronavirus patients and one in 25 on breathing support. It is the first trial to show a treatment provides significant impact in reducing the risk of death.
But the drug — given as either an injection or once-a-day tablet on the NHS — had no benefit for people who were hospitalised with the virus but did not require oxygen.
Health chiefs said they imposed a ban to prevent companies from exporting the drug to other countries, in order to protect the UK’s supply.
They have already stockpiled 200,000 courses of the drug for British patients, after buying it ahead of the results of the trial.
Professor Martin Landray, lead researcher, said dexamethasone could have saved up to 5,000 lives if it was used throughout the UK’s crisis. He said: ‘If you were to design a drug that treats coronavirus, this would be exactly how you’d hope it works.’
The steroid prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation, a nasty Covid-19 complication that makes breathing difficult. In seriously unwell patients, the lungs become so inflamed they struggle to work.