Homemade, tear-inducing powerful onion “cures” for flu are the latest medical misinformation spreading on TikTok — a sign, analysts say, that affordable, evidence-based health care is out of reach for many Americans.
Videos touting the spicy concoction — made by soaking chopped raw onions in water — as a miracle cure have garnered tens of millions of views on the influential app, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support the claim.
The videos have gained traction as the United States faces a so-called “triple pandemic” of influenza, Covid-19 and RSV that has strained health services.
Onions in reasonable amounts aren’t considered harmful — except for foul breath — but health experts warn such videos encourage a blind faith in simple home remedies that could pose a public health hazard.
“Onions aren’t going to harm anyone, but if someone is sick, they really should seek medical attention,” Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, told AFP.
“I’m afraid that people will just drink onions and not seek medical attention (and) they could spread Covid or the flu in the community.”
The pseudoscience has found plenty of takers, with comments below the videos filled with declarations of “This worked for me!”.
That, Wallace said, pointed to the so-called “placebo effect,” where the dubious onion treatment got the credit after the virus had naturally run its course.
The trend shows how TikTok is being inundated with unqualified influencers spreading misinformation, from vaccine-related and abortion-related untruths to health myths — often to boost engagement and views — which experts say can have a serious impact on medical decisions .
In one of the most popular TikTok videos, which racked up over 2.5 million views, a woman — whose profile made no mention of her qualifications and merely referred to her as “Mother Nature’s child” — eagerly promoted onion water.
For greater healing powers, she implored her viewers to ferment the concoction for hours to make it “more potent.”
“We love miracle cures and for some reason we seem to think that the more painful a cure is to take, the more magic it will do,” Abbie Richards, disinformation researcher and collaborator with the Accelerationism Research Consortium, told AFP.
“Simple solutions to complex problems often work well in engagement-driven algorithms like TikTok’s. Especially when these solutions are cheap and accessible in areas where evidence-based healthcare is not.”
A TikTok spokesperson told AFP the platform is removing content deemed medical misinformation and “likely to cause significant harm.”
The onion water videos, he added, did not cross that “significant harm” threshold and were therefore untouched.
According to many experts, this approach underscores the challenge that social media platforms face in finding ways to clean up misinformation without giving users the impression that they are trampling on freedom of expression.
Richards warned that “over moderation” in the case of onion water videos could backfire and “promote narratives that the truth about affordable medicine is being intentionally hidden.”
A more effective approach, she said, would be for TikTok to ensure accurate health information is “available, accessible and engaging.”
“Whether TikTok should remove videos about benign but useless remedies I can’t say,” Valerie Pavilonis, an analyst at misinformation watchdog NewsGuard, told AFP.
“But even if a supposed cure like drinking onion water to solve a sinus problem doesn’t hurt you directly, it might mislead you into believing you’re treating the problem.”
The popularity of the videos reflected what Richards called “systemic failures” in healthcare.
In a country with expensive medical care, about 30 million Americans, or nine percent of the population, do not have health insurance, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Millions of other Americans are “underinsured” because their coverage doesn’t give them affordable health care, according to the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund.
“It’s very easy for us to say, ‘Remember to talk to your doctor about medical treatments,'” Richards said.
“But I would expect that a society with limited access to health care, an overburdened health care system, and a generally confused way of dealing with the latest wave of illnesses could start drinking onion water or putting garlic in their ears.”
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