Onion water is taking over TikTok, with many users claiming that the spicy concoction is a natural cold and flu remedy that can help the body heal faster and fight symptoms like coughs and congestion. The drink has grown in popularity on the video-sharing platform in recent weeks as respiratory viruses circulate at unusually high levels in the United States.
If it seems like everyone is sick right now, that’s because a lot of people are, TODAY previously reported. The U.S. faces a “triple disease” of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 that will likely weigh on healthcare systems throughout the winter.
As these respiratory viruses continue to spread, many people are looking for ways to relieve symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, and congestion. This is where onion water comes into play.
What is onion water?
Onion water is pretty much what it sounds like. TikTok user @earthenchild shared how to make the drink in a now-viral video about onion water’s supposed healing properties.
It starts with chopping raw onions (red or yellow) into small pieces, then placing the chopped onions in a jar or bowl and adding filtered water. The mixture of fresh onions and water should then sit covered in the fridge overnight or about 12 hours and is then ready to drink.
Many TikTok users claim it clears respiratory symptoms like coughs and congestion, and others swear it helps the body heal faster from colds, flu, RSV, and sinus infections.
Although the remedy recently went viral on TikTok, the use of onions for health purposes is not new, according to experts.
“Onions for treating colds and flu are a home remedy that’s actually been around for centuries,” says Dr. Kitty O’Hare, senior medical director for pediatrics at Duke Primary Care, told TODAY.com. There are several variations of the remedy that are adopted by a variety of cultures, O’Hare adds, including fresh onion water, onions steeped in hot water to make a tea, onion water boiled with sugar to make a syrup, and even onion honey.
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So what does science say? Aside from sounding like a recipe for bad breath, can onion water actually ease breathing problems or help the body heal colds and flu?
Does Onion Water Work According to Science?
The short answer is no. “There’s not a lot of clear science behind it. … It’s been around for a very long time, but there’s no conclusive research showing it’s beneficial for the average person for coughs, colds, and flu,” says O’Hare.
dr Jason Nagata, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees. “I’m not aware of any scientifically proven studies that show any benefit for colds or respiratory problems,” he tells TODAY.com. “I just don’t think people should expect that they can really improve a cold or flu just with onions.”
However, some people may notice a slight difference in how they feel after consuming onion water, Nagata notes. Finally, raw onions have some very noticeable side effects. If you’ve ever hacked them, you know it can be a tearful challenge.
“Onions can make you cry. … When we come across something that has a strong odor, our body’s defense system creates a little loose mucus, and we get a runny nose and watery eyes,” says O’Hare. The pungent odor can also make people cough, O’Hare says, but this is all a temporary reaction — it doesn’t necessarily mean the onion is actually relieving symptoms or helping the body heal faster.
Nagata adds, “Some people may subjectively experience some benefit from (onion water), but in terms of the rigorous scientific research showing that onions can help with a cold or flu or other respiratory ailment, there’s not really the same body of evidence show that.”
Is drinking onion water harmful?
Onions are a popular food and a staple in many dishes. Experts say drinking onion water probably won’t hurt — unless, of course, you’re allergic. “A moderate amount of onions, whether in a tea or as a cooking ingredient, is generally safe. I don’t think it will harm anyone,” says Nagata.
However, raw onions can have some unpleasant effects because they’re highly acidic, O’Hare points out.
“Ingesting a large amount of raw onions can cause stomach upset or heartburn… and frequent skin contact can cause skin irritation or (exacerbated) eczema on the hands,” says Nagata.
So if you really feel like drinking onion water is helping your cold symptoms, it’s probably safe to continue doing so, the experts note. However, parents should always consult their child’s pediatrician before trying any new medications or natural remedies, O’Hare says.
What helps with cold and flu symptoms?
“I try to encourage my patients to try the therapies that we have some scientific evidence for, and there’s some research that shows they’re helpful,” says O’Hare.
These include nasal saline drops or sprays, which can help loosen mucus and make breathing easier, and cool-mist humidifiers and vaporizers to help moisturize the airways, O’Hare says. Honey can also be a natural cough suppressant and cover a sore throat, she adds, but it’s not safe for children under 1 year old.
“Sleep is super important for your immune system. … It keeps you from getting sick and helps you heal faster when you’re sick,” says O’Hare.
Staying hydrated is also crucial when you have cold or flu symptoms, the experts note.
“In general, fluids can help. I just don’t think they necessarily have to contain onions,” says Nagata. If you are concerned about respiratory problems, always consult your doctor.
In terms of preventing a cold or flu, Nagata said the most effective ways are washing hands, avoiding sick people, wearing masks in crowded spaces, getting a flu shot and staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations.
The experts also encourage people to be careful to try the home remedies they see online.
“Parents and patients should be aware of the health misinformation on social media and the internet. … It can be dangerous to follow people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” says Nagata.
“It’s important for people to fact-check the information they receive before following any specific advice, especially from sources that aren’t medical in nature,” says Nagata. Credible sources include the National Institutes of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, according to experts.
Natural remedies aren’t always “safer” just because they’re natural, experts point out.
“Drugs and medications that are officially prescribed or sold must go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (and) rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness, but none of that applies to dietary supplements or home remedies,” says Nagata.
While there’s no scientific evidence to support the claim that onion water relieves cold or flu symptoms, it probably won’t harm your body — just your breath.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com