Can chicken soup really cure the flu?

chicken and vegetable soup in a blue bowl next to a silver spoon

Megan Whitfield

Posted May 10, 2021


Feeling a cold coming on? We investigate whether any of those old homespun remedies actually work.

After a year’s reprieve thanks to social distancing, the cold and flu season is back with a vengeance. The runny nose, sneezing and sore throat that go with the common cold are, once again, as much a part of winter in Victoria as AFL footy and puffer jackets.

When it comes to fighting off those unwelcome symptons, it seems almost everyone has a favourite remedy they swear by. Chances are it’s a method that has been passed down through the family over many generations. But do any of these old-fashioned remedies actually work?

To get to the truth of the matter, we enlisted the help of Associate Professor Julian Rait, president of the Australian Medical Association Victoria, to put these old wives’ tales to the test.


Five classic remedies: do they really work?

 

Honey, lemon and ginger tea

This one tends to divide people. For some, the main appeal is the honey, for others it’s all about pumping up the ginger and squeezing out every drop of lemon juice. The idea is that the honey, ginger and hot liquid provide temporary relief for an inflamed throat, while the lemon packs a punch of vitamin C.

But how does it really stand up? “Ginger and honey are known to have some efficacy and, equally, honey is known to be a slight cough suppressant, so that one actually can be effective,” Julian says. 

“However, it is advised to never give honey to a child younger than age one… Also remember, coughing isn’t all bad. It helps clear mucus from your airway. If you or your child is otherwise healthy, there’s usually no reason to suppress a cough.”

As for adding a dash of whisky or brandy to the mix to help cure what ails you, Julian says it's not necessarily a bad thing – in moderation, of course. “Alcohol can act as a weak anaesthetic, so it can help soothe an inflamed throat,” he says. “[Although] we generally wouldn’t advise you consume much alcohol when you’re sick.”

Chicken soup

There’s nothing quite like a steaming bowl of chicken soup to rehydrate and warm you up when a fever strikes. It’s such a popular remedy for life's ills, there’s even a book series about it. So, is it time to whip out grandma’s recipe book?

“There may be some truth to this one,” Julian says. “Chicken soup contains a broth made of several vegetables and chicken bones cooked for hours, releasing zinc, calcium and magnesium into the liquid.

“Theories as to why it helps relieve cold symptoms include that hot soup helps clear a blocked nose, zinc helps shorten a cold, the hot water keeps you hydrated, and that there are several anti-inflammatory substances in the broth that help alleviate symptoms.”
 

clear glass of tea on wooden saucer next to small pink flowers

Warm liquids such as lemon and honey tea help with hydration while suppressing a persistent cough.


 

Get a good night's sleep

The simple act of having a good night’s rest allows the body to regenerate and renew the immune system. While you sleep, the body releases small proteins that help fight inflammation, infection and trauma, if you’re sick or injured, and boosts your immune system. You might need four hours or eight or 10 ,but listen to your body and hit the pillow when you need it. 

If you have trouble sleeping the state health department recommends trying meditation rather than pills to bring on a deep, restful sleep, and avoid mind-stimulating activities close to bedtime. 

Garlic

If nothing else, this one should at least help prevent spreading the virus – no one will want to come too close if you've been munching on garlic. Eating garlic has long been a popular remedy, as the pungent bulb is said to have anti-microbial properties that shorten the duration of a cold.

But Julian is not convinced. “There is no strong evidence that garlic has any special properties [to ward off a cold], and it doesn’t seem to reduce the longevity. This one is a true old wives’ tale.”

Vitamins

Most of us have been on the receiving end of that quick command to “have some vitamin C tablets” at the first sign of a sneeze. The idea is that a vitamin supplement will bump up nutrient levels in your body, boosting your immune system to fight the lurgy running rampant and leaving you feeling achy and congested.

However, Julian says there’s no need to spend your hard-earned cash on vitamin tablets. “If you have a vitamin deficiency vitamin supplements can help, but with a regular Western diet you are most likely getting the nutrients you need. By taking vitamin tablets all you’re really doing is creating expensive urine.”

He says while there's no conclusive evidence that vitamin C helps prevent or cure colds or flu, a 2007 study found that “vitamin C very slightly shortens cold duration when taken daily” – but this only works when tablets are taken every day, rather than after a cold begins. And even then the effect is very small. The research found “the average adult who suffers from a cold for 12 days a year would still suffer for about 11 days if that person took a high dose of vitamin C every day that year”. 

 


While steaming hot bowls of chicken soup and sipping on honey and lemon might help ward off a cold, when it comes to the flu, Julian says prevention is better than a cure. He recommends getting a flu vaccination as soon as possible. Scared of needles?

Try these expert tips to help combat the fear.


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