- TikTokers are using onions as a holistic health catch-all, from onion water for the flu to cut onions as air purifiers.
- Experts say eating onions could lower the severity of viral infections but won’t prevent them.
- A study found that 20% of TikToks contain misinformation, and health misinformation is relatively common.
“What do you do with onions?” @Poshmamma, TikTok’s self-described “onion lady,” asked viewers on October 23.”You cut them up and sit them around your house — they will purify the air and pull the toxins, bacteria, fungus, and viruses out of the air. They’re very powerful to keep your house sick-free.”
“If other people are getting sick in your house,” she continued, “run to the grocery store and get the red onions” to “draw in the sickness and draw in the poison.”
Soon after posting her onion advice, @Poshmamma’s account went private, but you can still view clips of the original video — which garnered more than 2.5 million views — in duets.
A slew of other TikTokers, including @Plants4life, @beautyofnaychure, and @jacqleengrace, have also sung the praises of onion therapy.
Nicole Napell (@americanmama4boys) told viewers in a November 7 TikTok that she’d placed a cut onion below her four-year-old child’s bed. “He’s never slept through the night,” she said, “and he slept all the way through the night last night.” Napell told viewers she was making onion water that day and encouraged them to follow @Poshmamma, who’d gone viral for a November 7 video on onions as a natural sedative.
Experts said drinking onion water likely won’t hurt, but leaving them out could cause them to mold
As much as wellness TikTokers seem to swear by the eye-watering vegetable, health experts are skeptical that there’s actually any health benefit to putting it around your home.
Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian and professor at the University of California Los Angeles and author of “Recipe for Survival,” said there is no evidence a cut onion around the house can clear the air of toxins, bacteria, fungi, or viruses.
Though some plants can cleanse the air of certain particulates like benzene and formaldehyde, Hunnes does not know of any vegetable that prevents disease from spreading through the air.
Plus, leaving cut vegetables around the home for too long can cause them to mold, which can trigger an allergic reaction.
But Hunnes said evidence does indicate a compound within onions can inhibit the growth and replication of viruses within the body. Slowing down how quickly a virus replicates allows the immune system to better ward off infection.
“Consuming onions might slightly lower the severity of the viral infection, but it probably won’t prevent it,” Hunnes said. “There is absolutely no drawback to eating onions while sick, unless you are allergic.”
Maddy Lewis, an epidemiologist and host of the podcast Epicentral, said the practice of using onions to ward off sickness may have originated during the Bubonic plague when doctors would use several herbs, plants, and flowers to filter “bad air” thought to be causing disease. Lewis said the onion trend may have recirculated during the 1918 flu pandemic, as herbal remedies generally become more popular during pandemics.
Hunnes and Lewis said to stick to the tried and true methods to protect against RSV and other infections: wear a mask, stay home if you’re sick, and regularly wash your hands.
Health misinformation is relatively easy to find on TikTok
During the baby formula shortage, home remedies that pediatricians called “dangerous” circulated on social media. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, abortive herbal treatments trended. Sometimes, #healthhacks with insufficient scientific support and potential for harm — like ingesting sea moss or doing a salt-water flush or parasite cleanse — become popular on the app.
This type of misinformation can be especially concerning on TikTok. It’s one of the fastest-growing platforms, and, according to Sensor Tower, it’s been the most-downloaded app in the US each quarter since Q1 2021. According to a September 2022 study by misinformation tracker NewsGuard, about 1 in 5 TikToks contain misinformation. (The study found that Google provided “higher-quality and less-polarizing results, with far less misinformation.”) In it, researchers noted that TikTok also tended to suggest more biased terms such as “covid vaccine truths” or “covid vaccine hiv” when the term “covid vaccine” was searched.
Lewis said people are especially vulnerable to misinformation during pandemics and times of social unrest. She said to be cautious of exaggerated claims promising a “cure” to disease, and when in doubt, ask your local health department.
“TikTok really blew up around the onset of the pandemic, and I think people are kind of grasping at anything to make them feel like they have power over their health and safety,” she added.