Can chicken soup really cure the flu?

Living Well | Megan Whitfield | Posted on 19 May 2019

Experts weigh in on some of our favourite old wives’ remedies.

When it comes to handling a cold, everyone seems to have their own method of fighting off the ever-present sniffle, the sneezing, the incredibly irritating throat tickle. Chances are, it’s a method that’s been passed down in your family. But do any of these old-fashioned remedies actually work?

We’ve enlisted the help of Associate Professor Julian Rait, President of the Australian Medical Association Victoria, to put these old wives’ tales to the test.

Woman with a cold lying on couch blowing her nose, wrapped up in a blanked with cup of tea on side table.

A hot cup of lemon, honey and ginger

This one tends to divide people. For some, the appeal is exclusively 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.”

How about when you add in some whisky?

“Alcohol can act as a weak anaesthetic, so it can help soothe an inflamed throat,” Julian says. “[Although] we generally wouldn’t advise you consume much alcohol when you’re sick.”

Maybe keep it to just the one hot toddy, then.

Chicken soup

Another classic suggestion. Soothing for the soul (supposedly), there’s nothing quite like a steaming bowl of chicken soup to rehydrate and warm you up when a fever comes a-knocking. It’s such a common cold remedy, 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 hot soup clearing blocked noses, zinc helping shorten a cold, the hot water keeping you hydrated, and that there are several anti-inflammatory substances to alleviate colds.”

Person holding a cup of hot water with lemon and ginger

Tea with honey and ginger is Professor Rait’s go-to natural remedy.  


Bowl of chicken soup loaded with vegetables sitting on a bench with soup pot and vegetables in the background

There’s no denying the benefits of cold-fighting favourite, chicken soup.


Bulbs of fresh garlic wrapped in white linen cloth

The jury is still out on garlic’s supposed cold-curbing potential.


Sleep

When every task feels three times harder to complete as you juggle it against the fatigue, the sneezing and the general state of misery a cold can bring, it’s likely the first thing on your mind when you get home is bed.

Reducing your busyness and settling in for a long night under the covers supposedly gives your body more time to just focus on getting rid of that nasty lurgy. Or does it?

“People should be getting 7.5 to eight hours of sleep a night,” Julian says. “Getting a satisfactory amount of sleep does have a recuperating effect... [but] anything less, or more, may cause adverse effects.”

(On that note: here are some tips to ensure you get the best-quality sleep possible.)

Garlic

If nothing else, this one is sure to at least stop the spread of your virus – no one is coming too close to you with that breath. It may not be a particularly tasty option but eating cloves of garlic has long been an encouraged remedy for shortening the length of a cold, thanks to anti-microbial properties in the pungent bulb.

“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

We’ve all been on the receiving end of that quick command to “have some vitamin C tablets” at the first sneeze. The idea is that they’ll bump up the overall levels of nutrients in your body, building up your immune system to fight the bacteria running rampant and leaving you feeling achy and congested.

However, Julian says there’s no hurry to pull that bottle of vitamins out from the back of your pantry. “If you have a vitamin deficiency it can help, but with a regular Western diet all you’re really doing is creating expensive urine.”

It hasn’t been shown to conclusively help prevent or heal colds or flu. When taken daily, [a 2007 study found] “vitamin C very slightly shortens cold duration”, but this only works when tablets are taken daily, rather than only after a cold begins.

According to this research, “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”.


And the winner is...

Chicken soup puts up a good fight, but for Associate Professor Rait the method of choice for warding off a cold is rest, closely followed by drinking a warm beverage with honey mixed in as something of a throat gargle when that scratchy throat appears. For the flu, he advocates getting vaccinated, immediately.