Appliance of science: Does chicken soup really cure a cold?

Scientist Dr Naomi Lavelle explains why people reach for chicken soup to cure the common cold.

It is the season for it. Along with the Christmas glow comes the Christmas glowing nose… the snuffles, the coughs, the aches and pains. When this happens many take out the pots and pans and start rustling up a chicken soup.

But is it just and old wives’ tale or something a little more? Believe it or not, there have been a number of scientific studies carried out to answer this question.

A bit of history

It seems that chicken soup has been a common remedy for a long time, handed down for generations in a wide variety of cultures as a cure for a variety of ailments.

A 12th century physician, Maimonides mentions it as a remedy for infections of the respiratory system in his book ‘On the cause of symptoms’. He even went as far as to suggest it could assist in curing asthma and leprosy.

What does science say?

It seems there may be some truth to this (the cold bit, not the leprosy!). When we get a cold our body launches a full scale war on the invading viruses. We produce an army of white blood cells in great numbers to travel to the place of infection and take out the enemy.

Unfortunately the battle can cause some of the symptoms that are so unpleasant with a cold, a blocked stuffy nose and a hacking cough, caused by inflammation and a build up of mucus.

Some of the white blood cells that are produced during this immune response are called neutrophils and they make up a large percentage of the cells used in this defence mechanism.

Research shows chicken soup appears to reduce the movement of neutrophils, thereby reducing the amount of mucus and inflammation.

Another study identified a compound called carnosine that they found had a direct effect on reducing inflammation. Carnosine is found in chicken breast meat and has been shown to be present in chicken soup.

There is one more way in which chicken soup may help to relieve the symptoms of a common cold. It can help to thin the mucus that has built up allowing it to be more easily cleared from the body.

A small study carried out in 1978 compared the effect on the viscosity of the mucus of cold sufferers, when they drank cold water, hot water and hot chicken soup. This small study reported an increase in the mucus viscosity of those that drank the soup.

Why do we get colds in the first place?

Most common colds that we get are caused by viruses. Although more than 200 types of viruses can cause the condition, known as a respiratory tract infection (RTI), the most common culprit is the rhinovirus. Colds tend to be a lot more prevalent in the colder months and there are many good reasons for this.

Firstly, the rhinovirus tends to thrive in colder conditions; secondly, there may be some truth in the fact that if we get cold, we catch a cold – it has been shown that low temperatures can reduce our natural immune response to these rhinoviruses - when our body temperature drops our antiviral response system can drop too.

Although there is still some controversy on the link between being cold and catching a cold, I prefer to err on the side of caution and who doesn’t like to snuggle up with a bowl of homemade chicken soup.

  • Naomi is a science communicator and mother to three inquisitive children.
  • She can be found at sciencewows.ie
  • If your child has a question email drhowsciencewows@gmail.com


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