Can Onions Prevent Flu — Or Does That Advice Stink?

January 29, 2018 Providence Health Team

Onions are thought to trap the flu virus to prevent it from spreading

This folk theory dates back hundreds of years, and is still circulating on social media today

Vaccines and hygiene are the proven ways to keep from getting sick


The flu is severe and widespread throughout the United States this flu season, so if you’re like most people, you’re trying to avoid it in any way possible. But are you so eager to avoid the virus that you’d put raw onions in every room of your home — or on your body? This flu-fighting tip is making the rounds on social media, but as it turns out, the only thing the onions are guaranteed to do is leave a funky odor in your house.

What’s the story?

The concept of using onions to prevent the flu goes back to the early 20th century, with tales of people escaping influenza epidemics because they put raw onions, either cut or whole, in bowls throughout their houses. The-onion-as-medicine folklore goes back even further for other types of contagious diseases, such as the bubonic plague and smallpox. A more modern take recommends putting sliced raw onions on the soles of the feet, slipping on socks and wearing them overnight to prevent illness.

The theory is that the onions trap the flu germs so they can’t spread. However, there’s no science to support this stinky home or foot therapy. The most common ways of getting the flu are via contact with someone who has it or touching a surface contaminated with the flu virus, such as a doorknob or counter, and then putting your hand to your nose or mouth — situations where a raw onion in a bowl (or on your feet) wouldn’t help even if it were effective.

What does work?

When it comes to flu prevention, the tried-and-true methods are the best. There are several precautions you can take to avoid getting sick, chief among them getting a flu vaccine and practicing proper hand-washing hygiene. If you do start experiencing flu symptoms — coughing, body aches and chills, sore throat, runny nose, headache and fever — get checked out by your doctor, drink lots of fluids and stay home from work or school to avoid passing on the virus to family members or coworkers.

As for onions, they do have their merits for helping you during flu and cold season — as long as you’re eating them. Onions are good sources of prebiotics. These compounds breed good gut bacteria, which in turn strengthen the body’s immune system to help you fight off any nasty flu bugs. Prebiotics also may help you sleep better and reduce stress — both good outcomes for preventing or recovering from sickness. And onions also have antioxidants. If you’re inclined to look to onions for antioxidants, avoid the white ones, because the colorful ones — reds and yellows — have more antioxidants.

And maybe one day, onions will play a bigger role in fighting disease. A study in Scientific Reports found that Persian shallots — which, like onions, are a member of the Allium family — may have antibacterial properties strong enough to be used in the development of medicine for drug-resistant tuberculosis. But until then, it’s best to make sure onions are part of a healthy diet and not part of your home décor.

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