Q. There is a message circulating on the Web about putting an unpeeled onion in a room to attract flu viruses. Apparently this is supposed to protect people from catching the flu. Is there any truth here?

A. There is no reason to think that onions could attract flu viruses out of the air the way the way a flame attracts moths. Viruses are not self-propelled. Though they get into the air when a person with flu coughs or sneezes, they have no more control over where they go than dust particles do.

The belief that onions have power against respiratory infections goes back a long, long way. The first printed reference cited on snopes.com, which examines urban legends and rumors, dates from 1900 and refers to “an old custom,” so putting an onion in a room to fight infection was already an old and possibly untraceable folk practice by then.

Washing hands frequently and avoiding those who have the flu are better precautions than putting onions around the house. For more information on fighting influenza, we offer our Guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.

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  1. Becky
    Chicago, IL

    Here’s a thought. If you are chopping, slicing, and eating onions, chances are that you’re also washing your hands, to remove the scent of the onions, and consequently washing away the microbes from your hands.

  2. EMS

    Onion cough cold syrup: place half an onion in a jar and add raw honey (about halfway up the onion).
    Let sit overnight turning/tipping the jar every so often. Take the onion out the next day. Onion is dry and leaves a syrupy onion smelling (but not tasting) honey. Works great for coughs and other respiratory illnesses. I have also seen a recipe that cooks the onion in the honey on the stove. Probably the way to go if you need the syrup ASAP.

  3. Donna f

    I also vaguely remember my nan making a onion syrup thing think it had sugar I also cannot remember is there anybody out there who knows I would love to hear from you

  4. jackie

    I slice or chop an onion, place it in a glass jar (mayo or pickle or whatever), cover it with sugar, screw on the jar top, set it up in a warm area (I sometimes place it on my gas stove near the pilot light), and in a few hours, I have a syrup.

  5. Kate

    When will our gov. wake up about true health care? Preventive measures–no smoking, no excessive drinking, plenty of exercise, no excessive eating and lean body mass tests. And yes, why not supplement farmers who raise the healthiest food for our children and us?

  6. kb

    Yes it’s nonsense that onion attracts the bacteria in the air. But I think it has better effects when eaten especially in a salad.

  7. Sedge

    If onions (raw, cooked or juiced) work for cough suppression, why not dehydrated flakes?

    My mother has chronic coughing spells now and then (atypical hypersensitive reflex). Not having any raw onions in her house, I suggested she try a new jar of dehydrated onion flakes I just purchased for her.

    The flakes work like a charm. She opens the bottle, she “sniffs”, and her cough is almost instantaneously suppressed: Gone! She can answer phone calls now… and even talk with the caller! Plans to take a small jar of the flakes in her purse for an instant fix. These flakes are very convenient and very little odor–if any–for others to notice. She’s still experimenting with how many “sniffs” for how many “minutes of suppression.”

    to PJ: perform a search on the internet for +onion +honey +cough to find recipes for a syrup made at home.

  8. pj

    I have always made onion sandwiches when I start getting a cold. It has always worked for me and my husband. The children won’t eat the onions that way, too bad it really works. My husband told me his mother would make onion syrup but can’t remember the ingredients needed besides the onions. Any suggestions?

  9. Maria

    I got an email saying onions were good at attracting bacteria/germs. I am all for natural remedies anyways so I tried it. Well, normally as of the past year or so I keep getting a cold ever 3 months. I am a Pre-School teacher…. go figure… BUT, I have passed the 3 month mark for the first times in months and I have not gotten even a sniffle. SO….. I think it works for sure. I have placed 1/4 of an onion in each room. I refresh every week to 10 days. Whatever works! I am going to try eating toasted onion sandwiches as a remedy too now. Natural is always the best way to go.

  10. Ally

    From the time I was very young if any of my brothers or sister or I had the sniffles our Dad would make us a toasted onion sandwich to eat daily until they were gone. We were very healthy and I don’t remember any of us getting colds – although my Mom would – she wouldn’t eat the sandwiches (doesn’t like onions!)
    I still use this remedy when the sniffles come and haven’t had a cold. We had the flu and I again used this as comfort food. My son and I were back on our feet within 4 days and my husband (who wouldn’t eat a sandwich) was 2 weeks.
    Sometimes we just need to look at what we eat to find the cure!

  11. Brent B.

    I guess people are expecting too much here — you have to actually consume the onion to get the benefit! I recently clipped out an article from our local newspaper, ‘The Clinton Herald,’ which describes how the Moldovan army is feeding onions and garlic to their soldiers to ward off the flu. I’d like to see our military (and health officials in general) champion this approach — rather than pushing all the pills and shots which are bound to have side effects!
    In fact, it looks like Defense Ministry chief doctor Col. Sergio Vasislita is taking a rather homeopathic approach — prescribing about an ounce serving of onion and a half ounce of garlic for each soldier’s daily rations. Onions and garlic definitely contain quercetin, which is great for respiratory health. And when you consider how the “crying effect” occurs, it strikes me as this would be the perfect preventative for the flu’s “cytokine storm” which can sometimes be deadly.
    Now imagine what we could do if we gave tax incentives to growing healthy foods — instead of subsidizing unhealthy processed foods and drugs!

  12. steve

    That is good logic whether or not it is valid in this case. Good comment.

  13. cm

    Perhaps the onion theory works because the onion fumes project out into the air attacking germs rather than the germs going to the onion. Fumes from the onion travel up to my eyes when I’m cutting an onion. Why couldn’t those same fumes travel out into the room to destroy germs?

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