Q: My lovely wife is always looking to ward off colds, the flu, etc. Her newest strategy is to put cut onions in a jar in every room. I say she’s crazy, but if I’m wrong, it won’t be the only thing that brings a tear to my eye.
Mike Boucher, of Troy
A: My immediate reaction was to congratulate your better half in devising such a perfect plan to prevent winter’s dreaded maladies.
In fact, I was going to suggest she add some garlic, Limburger and bottles of eau de roadkill to the mix. Put them all together and you’d likely discourage all friends and family from visiting, thereby drastically reducing your chances of encountering anyone able to pass on a nasty bug. See? Foolproof idea.
However, since I strive never to cause a stink in an otherwise happy (and healthy) household, let me be diplomatic and call your current bone (or, in this case, vegetable) of contention a draw.
On one hand, while onions do have some antimicrobial properties, there is no scientific evidence to even remotely suggest that their aroma can kill a cold virus floating in the air, much less draw in a flu germ like a bug zapper does a fly. Maybe if you eat the onion, it might kill pathogens in the mouth for a while, but lighting onion-scented candles would be a waste of time, money and good air freshener.
Unless, perhaps — and this a pretty big “perhaps” — you truly believe it works. In this case, all bets might be off, say docs at even the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“Just about anything can help if you believe it will help — the placebo effect,” Mayo’s Dr. Gregory Polland, an infectious disease specialist, once told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Your attitude and expectations are important. So if you believe that vitamin C or echinacea or jazz will help ward off a cold, it actually may.”
So go ahead. Slice those onions. And while you’re at it, put Percy Faith on your mp3, shuck some oysters, slurp that chicken soup (with beer, of course) and pilfer some catnip from your family feline to brew a tea. They’re all tried-and-true ways of fighting off a virus — at least, if you’re a believer in folk medicine. But first, a little more about those onions.
The idea that these pungent veggies can prevent disease is about as old as the hills it comes from. This is from a 1900 issue of Chambers’ Journal:
“In remote country villages one sometimes sees an old custom which, in its essence, is wise, though the performers do not know its why or wherefore. This is to place plates full of sliced onion at the side of any bed or coffin wherein lies the body of a person dead of infections (sic) disease. ... The floating germs were attracted to that blackening onion, and settled on thickly, the result being the onion’s discoloration and the great purification of the air in the death-chamber.”
Anecdotal evidence of its medicinal properties apparently spread during the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people around the world.
“In 1919, there was this doctor that visited many farmers to see if he could help them combat the flu,” according to one popular story that has floated around the internet. “Many of the farmers and their families 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. 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.”
Just how to accomplish this seems to vary. Some say yellow onions are best and never to use red unless desperate. Some say they should be hung in front of doorways, some say they should be hung from the ceiling in the room, some (like your wife) say they should be sliced and placed in every room. And it’s not just colds and flu. For thousands of years, onions have been revered as fertility symbols and analgesics as well as for overcoming all manner of disease from diphtheria to smallpox.
But, again, no gold-standard, double-blind study has ever proved their effectiveness.
“Viruses require a living host to replicate and can’t propel themselves out of a body and across a room,” the Wall Street Journal noted in 2009, reminding readers that hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding sick people are far better bets.
And, remember this: You also can find folklore insisting that keeping cut onions lying around the house can be terribly unlucky. So if that prospect scares you, you can try oysters (high in zinc), beer (contains humulone — although you may need 30 brewskis to have an effect, at which point you wouldn’t care about the flu), muzak (raises levels of IgA, although after enough Kenny G, you may prefer the cold), and cold, wet socks when you go to bed (stimulates blood circulation).
“Well, most of these are not remedies I’d typically recommend,” Polland said. “But if your grandma’s salve has helped generations of your family get through colds, then maybe the science doesn’t matter.”
Just keep the Certs and a clothespin for your nose handy.
What country eats the most onion per capita?
Answer to Monday’s trivia: According to comichron.com, the best-selling comic book of all time was the first issue of X-Men Volume 2 in October 1991 with sales of nearly 8.2 million copies.