Do Cut Onions Collect And Kill the Flu Virus?
This is an interesting folk remedy which has been around for decades, if not centuries. As the story goes, if you leave a dish of cut onions in a room, it will collect and kill the flu virus. As well as any other virus – colds, bacterial infections, etc.
This myth is spread in modern times by one of those email forwards that seem to come out of nowhere. In one, a “hairdresser in AZ told me.” Another forwarded email tells the story of a traveling doctor during the swine flu outbreak of 1919, who visits a healthy farmhouse and finds the farm wife’s cure: a cut onion which, when he examines it under the microscope, is teeming with the flu virus which it has “absorbed.”
There is of course absolutely no scientific foundation for this belief. The flu virus is not able to propel itself through the air and seek a host like a mosquito. It drifts like a dust mote. The same is true of all viruses – they will not seek out a cut onion, nor will they seek you out.
Furthermore, in order to get sick from a cold or flu virus, you need to have direct contact with a fairly large amount of the virus. If someone sneezes near you and you inhale, or if you touch something that a sick person has touched (without washing their hands) then touch your nose or mouth (without washing your hands). There is very little risk from the air in your house, unless someone in that room is actively sick. And even when that is the case, a cut onion won’t make a lick of difference.
This belief stems from an ancient theory of disease which long predates our understanding of germs. In the middle ages and earlier, bad smells were thought to be the agent of disease. If you could protect yourself from the bad smell, so the theory went, you wouldn’t get sick. During the Black Plague, people attempted to protect themselves by walking around smelling flowers, holding perfumed cloths to their face, or burning incense.
The interesting thing about this “bad smells make you sick” theory is that it wasn’t entirely incorrect. The bad smell of a rotting body, or of a stagnant swamp, indicates the presence of other things (germs) that can make you sick. The bad smell of a swamp cannot give you malaria, but the mosquitoes that breed in the swamp surely can.
The same thing goes for chamber pots, perhaps the less said about which, the better.
In this context, it’s natural to believe that the bad smell of a freshly cut onion might help ward off or combat the sickness-causing bad smells. This is closely related to the belief that garlic wards off vampires.
The only way to truly ward off influenza is to get vaccinated against the latest strains, keep your hands washed, avoid touching your face, eat right, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and generally keep yourself healthy. But should you fall sick, adding fresh onions to piping hot chicken broth is both delicious and helpful in clearing your sinuses!
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