What doctors think about the viral TikTok onion water cold remedy

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Onion water is taking over TikTok, with many users claiming that the pungent concoction is a natural cold and flu remedy that can help the body heal faster and kick symptoms like coughing and congestion. The drink has become increasingly popular on the video-sharing platform in recent weeks, as respiratory viruses circulate at unusually high levels across 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. is facing a “tripledemic” of influenza, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), and COVID-19, which will likely strain health systems through the winter.

As these respiratory viruses continue to spread, many people are looking for ways to relieve symptoms like coughing, sneezing, and congestion. That's where onion water comes in.

What is onion water?

Onion water is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. TikTok user @earthenchild detailed how to make the drink in a now-viral video about onion water’s alleged healing properties.

It starts with cutting up raw onions (red or yellow) into small pieces then placing the chopped onions into a jar or bowl and adding filtered water. The fresh onion and water mixture should then sit covered in the refrigerator overnight or for about 12 hours, and then it's ready to drink.

Many TikTok users claim that it kicks respiratory symptoms like coughing and congestion and others swear that it helps the body heal faster from colds, the flu, RSV, and sinus infections.

Although the remedy has recently gone viral on TikTok, using onions for health purposes is not new, according to experts.

“Onion as a treatment for colds and flus is a home remedy that’s been around for centuries actually,” Dr. Kitty O’Hare, senior medical director for pediatrics at Duke Primary Care, tells TODAY.com. There are several variations of the remedy embraced by a variety of cultures, O’Hare adds, including fresh onion water, onion steeped in hot water to create a tea, onion water boiled with sugar to create a syrup, and even onion honey.

So what does the science say? Besides sounding like a recipe for bad breath, can onion water actually relieve respiratory symptoms, or help the body heal from colds and the flu?

Does onion water work according to science?

The short answer is no. “There is not a lot of clear science behind it. … It has been around for a very long time, but there isn’t clear research showing that it has a benefit for your average person for coughs, colds and flus,” O’Hare says.

Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees. “I’m not aware of any scientifically proven studies that show any kind of benefit for colds or respiratory symptoms,” he tells TODAY.com. “I just don’t think that people should expect that they’ll be able to really improve colds or flus with just onions.”

However, some people may experience a slight difference in how they feel after consuming onion water, Nagata notes. After all, raw onions have some very noticeable side effects. If you’ve ever chopped them, you know it can be a teary challenge.

“Onions can make you cry. … When we encounter something that has a strong odor, our body’s defense system causes a little loose mucus, and we get a runny nose and runny eyes,” says O’Hare. The pungent odor may also make people cough, says O’Hare, 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 symptoms, there is not the same level of data to really show that.”

Is drinking onion water harmful?

Onions are a popular food and a staple ingredient in many dishes. Drinking onion water probably won't hurt, according to the experts — unless you’re allergic, of course. “A moderate amount of onions, whether it’s in a tea or as a cooking ingredient, is generally safe. I don’t think it’s going to harm anyone,” says Nagata.

However, raw onions can cause some unpleasant effects because they are highly acidic, O’Hare points out.

“Taking in a large amount of raw onions can lead to stomach distress or heartburn … and frequent contact on your skin can lead to skin irritation or (worsen) eczema on your hands,” says Nagata.

So if you truly feel that drinking onion water helps 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 medicine or natural remedy, says O’Hare.

What does help relieve cold and flu symptoms?

“I try to encourage my patients to try the therapies for which we do have some science and there has been some research to show that they’re helpful,” O’Hare says.

These include nasal saline drops or sprays, which can help loosen up the mucus and make it easier to breathe, as well as humidifiers and cool mist vaporizers to moisturize the airways, O'Hare says. Honey can also be a natural cough suppressant and can coat a sore throat, she adds, but it’s not safe for children under 1 year of age.

“Sleep is super important for your immune system. … It helps keep you from getting sick and helps you get better faster when you are 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 need to have onions in them,” Nagata says. If you are concerned about respiratory symptoms, always consult your healthcare provider.

In terms of preventing colds or the flu, Nagata says the most effective means are hand-washing, 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 being mindful about trying the home remedies they see online.

“Parents and patients should be aware of health misinformation on social media and the internet. … It can be dangerous if you follow people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” says Nagata.

“It’s important that people fact check information that they’re getting before following any particular advice, particularly from sources that are not medical in nature,” says Nagata. According to the experts, credible sources include the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Natural remedies aren’t always “safer” simply because they're natural, the experts stress.

“Medicines and drugs that are officially prescribed or sold have to go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (and) rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness, but none of that applies to supplements or home remedies,” Nagata says.

While there's no scientific evidence to support the claim that onion water relieves cold or flu symptoms, it probably won't do any harm to your body — just your breath.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com