Does Chicken Soup Cure a Cold?

From the Lecture series The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

Tell your mother or grandmother that your throat feels funny, and you will immediately be presented with the most common cure for a cold: soup, especially chicken soup. It sure feels good to eat something warm and soupy during a cold, but is it as effective in terms of curing? Scientists have tried to answer that question, and their answer might disappoint many people.

Mother feeding her sick son with soup in the kitchen.
Many people across the world prefer to have soup, particularly chicken soup to cure common cold. (Image: Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock)

The most common cure for a cold is eating soup. Of course, vitamin C and echinacea are also among the top ten, but the soup is somehow global. Is it as effective as many people believe? Is it as effective as vitamin C and echinacea?

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Vitamin C and Echinacea

Studies have shown that vitamin C does not help reduce a cold’s duration much, only up to 20%. Further, there is a 2000-milligram-per-day limit for the intake of vitamin C. Studies on echinacea also show that it does not help either adults or children recover quickly.

Studies that cited positive points relied mainly on speculations and quotes from others, not statistics and research results. For example, NBC News reported no significant effect in a study on 700 adults and children. Yet, it tried to show some positive points, none of which was supported by research.

Learn more about the media’s role in improving health.

Chicken Soup

In 2017, the UK’s Daily Mail published an article that supported chicken soup’s benefits as the most common cure for a cold. The article cited two studies. First was a study from 2010 that looked at the movement of neutrophils, a white blood cell involved in fighting infections, and how that movement changed with exposure to chicken soup.

The findings said, “It is suspected that reducing the movement of neutrophils could decrease activity in the upper respiratory tract that causes cold-like symptoms. And the results found just that, suggesting that chicken soup might have anti-inflammatory components, which may ease symptoms and shorten upper respiratory tract infections.”

Sick young woman having soup to cure flu.
The sources that support chicken soup as a remedy do not use statistically significant findings of studies, and sometimes the studies are not carried out on humans at all. (Image: New Africa/Shutterstock)

The reason for so much uncertainty is that the study was done on white blood cells, not humans. The study is not at all salient as it does not look at people with colds, which are the target group of the study.

Another problem is that the study exposed white cells directly to chicken soup, which is not what happens in the body. The soup is never injected directly into the blood!

The other studies or quotes mentioned for supporting the benefits of chicken soup were also not scientifically trustworthy. For example, another study that the UK article referred to was “conducted nearly 40 years ago” and “found that chicken soup’s aroma, heat, and spices could help to clear sinuses and congestion by breaking up mucus and opening airways.”  

There are no scientifically supported facts in the results. Other parts of the article talked about quotes that support giving extra fluids during a cold, not chicken soup directly.

CNN’s Article on Chicken Soup

In 2018, CNN also referred to the 40-year-old study on chicken soup. The study was done on 15 healthy adults, inserting tiny particles in their noses to mimic a clump of bacteria or viruses. Researchers measured the activity of the particles when they were inserted before and after cold water, hot water, and chicken soup.

Results showed that the Teflon disks intended to mimic the nasal mucus that happens during a cold were really cleared more easily after drinking chicken soup. However, the number of participants was too low, and none of them had a cold. Thus, the study could not support chicken soup that well.

It must be noted, however, that no one has proved chicken soup is not effective either. Apparently, there is no harm in drinking soup when having a cold, but there is no scientific reason yet.

Learn more about diet, health, and the power of words.

Zinc and Cold

In 2011, The Telegraph newspaper from the UK said that taking zinc can prevent colds and reduce their duration. They reported a review of 15 clinical trials published since 1984, from the Cochrane Collaboration.

The Cochrane Collaboration is a nonprofit, not-industry-sponsored group and reviews published articles objectively to assess a medical intervention. The review showed that people who took a zinc syrup solution or lozenged every two hours during their cold had a 50% higher chance of recovering in one week, compared to those who took a placebo.

Zinc had also reduced the incidence of the common cold, school absence, and antibiotic use in healthy children. Thus, the chicken soup might be helpful as the most common cure for a cold, but zinc has some scientific support that it can fight colds.

Common Questions about the Most Common Cure for a Cold

Q: Does the chicken soup cure colds?

The most common cure for a cold is chicken soup, while studies in different parts of the world have shown it is not an effective remedy.

Q: Does the chicken soup have anti-inflammatory components?

A study on chicken soup, the most common cure for a cold, showed that it might have anti-inflammatory components, which may ease symptoms and shorten upper respiratory tract infections. However, it was not a salient study, and the results could not be trusted.

Q: Does Zinc fight colds?

Perhaps, taking zinc is not the most common cure for a cold, but The Telegraph newspaper from the UK once suggested it could reduce the length of a cold.

Q: What are other common cold remedies?

The most common cures for a cold are taking vitamin C and echinacea, which have also proven to be only somewhat effective, if helping at all.

Keep Reading
Zinc Has Stood the Test of Time for Minimizing Colds
How Can We Differentiate Between Science and Pseudoscience?
Are Dietary Supplements Necessary?