Raw Onions and Flu

Netlore Archive: Can raw onions absorb germs and prevent flu?

Sweet Onions
Sweet Vidalia Onions. Elisa Cicinelli/Getty Images

A viral article circulating since 2009 claims that placing raw, sliced onions around the home will protect the household from influenza and other diseases by "collecting" or "absorbing" any germs or viruses present. Science and common sense suggest otherwise.

Description: Folk remedy / Old wives' tale
Circulating since: Oct. 2009 (this version)
Status: False (details below)


Email text contributed by Marv B., Oct.

7, 2009:


In 1919 when the flu killed 40 million people there was this Doctor that visited the many farmers to see if he could help them combat the flu. Many of the farmers and their family had contracted it and many died.

The doctor came upon this one farmer and to his surprise, everyone was very healthy. When the doctor asked what the farmer was doing that was different the wife replied that she had placed an unpeeled onion in a dish in the rooms of the home, (probably only two rooms back then). The doctor couldn't believe it and asked if he could have one of the onions and placed it under the microscope. She gave him one and when he did this, he did find the flu virus in the onion. It obviously absorbed the virus, therefore, keeping the family healthy.

Now, I heard this story from my hairdresser in AZ. She said that several years ago many of her employees were coming down with the flu and so were many of her customers. The next year she placed several bowls with onions around in her shop. To her surprise, none of her staff got sick. It must work.. (And no, she is not in the onion business.)

The moral of the story is, buy some onions and place them in bowls around your home. If you work at a desk, place one or two in your office or under your desk or even on top somewhere. Try it and see what happens. We did it last year and we never got the flu.

If this helps you and your loved ones from getting sick, all the better. If you do get the flu, it just might be a mild case..

Whatever, what have you to lose? Just a few bucks on onions!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


There's no scientific basis for this old wives' tale, which dates at least as far back as the 1500s, when it was believed that distributing raw onions around a residence protected inhabitants from the bubonic plague. This was long before germs were discovered, and the prevalent theory held that contagious diseases were spread by miasma, or "noxious air." The (false) assumption was that onions, whose absorbent qualities had been well known since ancient times, cleansed the air by trapping harmful odors.

"When a home was visited by the plague," writes Lee Pearson in Elizabethans at Home (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), "slices of onion were laid on plates throughout the house and not removed till ten days after the last case had died or recovered. Since onions, sliced, were supposed to absorb elements of infection, they were also used in poultices to draw out infection."

In the ensuing centuries the technique remained a staple of folk medicine, with application not only as a preventative for the plague, but to ward off all kinds of epidemic diseases, including smallpox, influenza, and other "infectious fevers." The notion that onions were effective for this purpose even outlasted the concept of miasma, which gave way to the germ theory of infectious disease by the late 1800s.

That transition is illustrated by passages from two different 19th-century texts, one of which claims that sliced onions are capable of absorbing a "poisonous atmosphere," while the other says onions will absorb "all the germs" in a sickroom.

"Whenever and wherever a person is suffering from any infectious fever," we read in Duret's Practical Household Cookery, published in 1891, "let a peeled onion be kept on a plate in the room of the patient.

No one will ever catch the disease, provided the said onion be replaced every day by one freshly peeled, as then it will have absorbed the whole of the poisonous atmosphere of the room, and become black."

And, in an article published in the Western Dental Journal in 1887, we read: "It has been repeatedly observed that an onion patch in the immediate vicinity of a house acts as a shield against the pestilence. Sliced onions in a sick room absorb all the germs and prevent contagion."

There is, of course, no more scientific basis for the belief that onions absorb all the germs in a room than the belief that onions rid the air of "infectious poisons." Viruses and bacteria can become airborne via droplets of saliva or mucus when people cough or sneeze, but they don't, generally speaking, hover in the atmosphere like gases and odors.

By what physical process — other than magic — is this "absorption" supposed to take place?

2014 update: A new variant of this message began circulating in 2014 which claimed — again without any scientific basis — that placing sliced raw onions on the soles of someone's feet and covering them with socks overnight will "take away illness."

See also: Are Leftover Onions Poisonous?

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