An Onion a Day Keeps the Virus at Bay

So my mom forwards me an email today filled with yet another list of dos and don’ts for health and safety written by some anonymous author. In the past I’ve received forwarded emails from her filled with advice written by “experts” about plastic, microwaves, SARS, H1N1, cell-phones, parking lots, beef, going to sleep with wet hair, etc. The list is endless.  Today’s email, written in Chinese with English translations, touted the medicinal benefits of onions. Not about eating them, but rather, about taking the bulbs to bed.

The email contained unverifiable nuggets of “facts” (I like to call them fuggets, pronounce however you like) such as:

“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 place 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 bacteria, therefore keeping the family healthy.”

Fuggets often contain enough info to be confused as truth, and like truth, it is often twisted to fit the story.  After some digging around, I found out that viruses weren’t detected by the human eye until 1930 following the invention of the electron microscope. And the flu is caused by a virus, not a bacteria.

In addition to fuggets, there are always unverifiable hear-say anecdotes from a “friend”.

“Now, I heard this story from my hairdresser in Arizona.

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


…I sent it to a friend in Oregon who regularly contributes material to me on health issues.

She replied with this most interesting experience about onions: I don’t know about the farmer’s story, but I do know that I contracted pneumonia, and needless to say I was very ill.

I came across an article that said to cut both ends off an onion, put one end on a fork, and then place the forked end into an empty jar, placing the jar next to the sick patient at night. It said the onion would be black in the morning from the germs. Sure enough, it happened just like that.”

I’m surprised that the email didn’t include a recommendation to turn the virus-infused onion into pico de gallo and serve it with tortilla chips. It would seem to be the next logical step given that the effectiveness of flu vaccines is due to the fact that they contain dead viruses to help our immune system produce antibodies.

However snarky my thoughts may be on emails such as the one I received, I cannot discount the potential powers of the mighty onion because I have a supporting anecdote of my own.  And since I am writing this blog post, you can be assured of the DO of this first hand eye-witness account.

One time in Basque Country, my friends and I were grazing our way through San Sebastián when Cupcake was suddenly felled by a cold and or sinus infection. Whatever it was, the ailment was bad enough to knock her out from our planned tapas crawl on the famed Calle 31 de Agosto and cause her a night of suffering.  Leire, the daughter of the woman who owned the Pensión Bellas Artes where we were staying, said that she could hear Cupcake coughing all night.  Hoping to make sure that Cupcake didn’t waste away from starvation on the rest of our trip, she suggested a home remedy her mother often provided to sick guests staying at their pension with successful results.

Yep, you guessed it. The remedy was to cut an onion in half and place it by your head when you sleep at night.

We were incredulous at first.  ¿Una cebolla? No me digas!  Leire couldn’t tell us what made it work but she was adamant that we follow her suggestion.  Given that the normal go-to fix of over-the-counter cold medicine had not worked, and not wanting to miss out on Martín Berasategui’s Bistro at the Guggenheim Bilbao and other assorted tastiness, Cupcake opted to give the dubious cebolla a try.

It was the first purchase we made when we arrived in Bilbao that day and later that evening, the three of us gathered around Cupcake’s bedside as she hovered over the onion like a surgeon poised for the first incision.  From the wide-eyed manner with which we were observing “our cebolla” (as we liked to call it), one would think that none of us had ever seen an onion before.  The act was completed as swiftly and as awkwardly as could have been done with a weak plastic knife and the cebolla halves were laid down on a chair next to Cupcake’s head and as far away as possible from me and Babyfigs.

I contemplated how the night would pass given that the three of us were sharing a small and poorly ventilated room. But we got used to the onion scent and sure enough in the morning, Cupcake was indeed cough and congestion free and we all smelled faintly of salsa.  Our cebolla didn’t look any worse for wear so we are not sure what caused the remedy to work so well.  However, onions are known to have antiviral and antibacterial properties.  Perhaps Cupcake absorbed the healing onion vapors into her body and it soothed her in the same way that some babies are lulled to sleep by the sound of lawnmowers. Whatever it was, our cebolla worked its magic.

As for the practical application of using onions to ward off the flu suggested in the email, who really wants to lug around bags of onions in this day and age of convenience and efficiency? Plus you would have to replace the onion every day so it’s really not just a couple of bucks as the email implied.  I am convinced that there is a more pragmatic and elegant solution.  L’eau du oignon anyone?

1 thought on “An Onion a Day Keeps the Virus at Bay

  1. I had a terrible virus of some sort, awful body aches and hot and chills, and I put my feet in a pan of chopped onion, and that night had a fever break and then was FINE!

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