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An Inside Scoop on the Science Behind Chicken Soup and the Common Cold

It is a common practice in today’s modern society to turn to chicken soup as a cold remedy, but what is the science behind chicken soup? This article provides insight into the common cold and the scientific evidence behind the cold-fighting properties of chicken soup.

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Although the common cold has been a long-standing and frequently encountered ailment, many unresolved questions remain concerning the common cold. However, scientific research has provided us with greater insights into the science behind chicken soup and possible reasons why colds are more common during seasons with lower temperatures. Although debate remains as to whether being cold can increase your risk of catching the common cold, it may be best to err on the safe side and stay warm this cold season.



For centuries, chicken soup has been considered a remedy for colds. In fact, the Egyptian Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides advised people to consume chicken soup for the relief of respiratory tract symptoms in his 12th century treatise. Furthermore, a range of other cultures have utilized chicken soup in their traditional healing practices to combat the common cold. It is even common practice in today’s modern society to turn to chicken soup as a cold remedy, but what is the science behind chicken soup? Read on to uncover some insight into the common cold and the scientific evidence behind the cold-fighting properties of chicken soup.


Why Colds are More Common When It’s Cold?

            Although being cold by itself does not cause people to come down with the common cold, the combination of the following can contribute to why colds occur more frequently during the fall and winter seasons:

  • Rhinoviruses (viruses that cause the common cold) thrive in low temperatures. According to a 2013 article in Nature News, researchers have recognized this fact for decades [1]. Additionally, a 2009 article published in Respiratory Medicine reported that in a cold environment, the upper respiratory tract temperature may be more favorable to the replication of rhinoviruses, leading to an increase in occurrences of the common cold during times of lower temperature [2].
  • At low temperatures, our bodies may produce fewer antiviral immune signals and leave us more vulnerable to infections. At the 2013 American Society for Microbiology conference, scientists from Yale University presented their research that demonstrated how low temperatures may compromise natural defenses against rhinoviruses. In their study involving mice and a mouse-specific rhinovirus, they found that in colder conditions, the mice produced fewer antiviral immune signals than in warmer conditions. This reduction in antiviral signals allowed infections to persist more easily at colder temperatures. Furthermore, the scientists performed research on human airway cells grown in either a cold or warm lab setting and infected the cells with rhinoviruses that cause colds in humans. From this study, they demonstrated that the infected cells grown in a warmer environment underwent programmed cell death (a form of cell suicide resulting from an immune response to limit the spread of the infection) at a higher rate than the cells infected in the colder environment [1].
  • Cold temperatures and low humidity, characteristics of the “cold” season, are associated with increased occurrences of acute respiratory tract infections (which include conditions like the common cold) according to the 2009 Respiratory Medicine article mentioned above [2]. Additionally, the US Department of Health and Human Services: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) explains that cold-causing viruses “survive” better in low humidity, which occurs during colder months. Furthermore, the NIAID also reports that cold weather can cause the lining of the nose to become drier and more susceptible to viruses that cause the common cold [3].


Staying Warm to Prevent the Common Cold?

Can being physically cold actually increase your chances for coming down with the cold? There’s still controversy over this topic and researchers have reported findings that suggest different answers to this question.

·      A 1968 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined 44 volunteers for experimentally induced rhinovirus infections and found that exposure to low temperatures (approximately 39 to 50°F) did not influence the frequency or severity of colds resulting from the strain of rhinovirus used in the study [4].

·      A 2005 study published in Family Practice demonstrated that subjects who had their feet chilled in a cold water bath were more likely to self-report cold symptoms 4 to 5 days after the chilling procedure compared with the control participants who did not have their feet chilled [5].


Despite the inconclusive nature of research concerning the relationship between cold temperature exposure and the common cold, the cautious thing to do may simply be to stay warm during the cold season. Additionally, Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, MD, the founder and director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine and the Wallis Annenberg Professor in Integrative East-West Medicine, places great emphasis on keeping the head, neck, shoulders, and feet warm to avoid unnecessary loss in body heat.


The Science Behind Chicken Soup

  • Anti-Inflammatory Effect:

A 2000 study published in CHEST suggested that the mild anti-inflammatory effect conferred by chicken soup could be one of the reasons behind the soup’s ability to mitigate symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections like the common cold. Typically, when an individual comes down with a cold, the body responds with inflammation in the upper respiratory tract. The inflammatory response in turn signals white blood cells (WBCs) to migrate to the region. This migration of WBCs into upper respiratory tract may contribute to the commonly encountered cold symptoms, such as stuffy noses.When the researchers measured the ability of the WBCs to migrate through a filter from one side of a chamber to the other side, they found that fewer cells migrated to the other side of the chamber in the presence of chicken soup. As a result, the scientists of the study propose that some ingredient in the soup may be responsible for slowing or blocking the migration of these WBCs to the upper respiratory tract and thus, aid in relieving cold symptoms. Nevertheless, from this study of chicken soup (made from ingredients including chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, salt, and pepper), the researchers were unable to identify the biologically active compound [6-7]. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics suggested that a compound called carnosine, which is found in sources like chicken soup and chicken breast, could help inhibit the proinflammatory conditions typically associated with the initial stages of viral infections and prevent the development of the common cold [8].

  • Increased Movement of Nasal Fluids:

Although hot fluids typically aid in the movement of nasal mucus, chicken soup can be superior to hot water in increasing the movement of nasal mucus, clearing the airways, and easing congestion. This insight into chicken soup is based upon a study that examined the nasal mucus velocity of 15 healthy subjects who drank cold water, hot water, or chicken soup. The results of this research (published in a 1978 article in CHEST) demonstrated that compared with hot water and cold water, hot chicken soup led to improved nasal mucus velocity [9]. Furthermore, according to a 1998 report from Coping with Allergies and Asthma, chicken soup may improve the ability of the tiny hairline projections in the nose (called cilia) to prevent infectious particles from afflicting the body [10].


A Closer Look into Some Therapeutic Ingredients:

·      Garlic: A 2001 study published in Advances in Therapy demonstrated through a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment that the group receiving garlic supplements had significantly fewer colds than the placebo group. Additionally, when afflicted with the common cold, those who received the garlic supplements recovered more quickly than those who were part of the placebo group [11]. Although the details behind garlic’s ability to exhibit antiviral properties is not well understood, a 2009 review published by The Cochrance Library states that garlic’s sulfur-containing derivatives may play a role in its antiviral effects [12].

·      Onions: According to a 2013 review published in Critical Reviews of Food Science and Nutrition, the major onion flavonoid (a compound with antioxidant effects) is a molecule known as quercetin [13]. Furthermore, a 2005 study published in the Federation of European Biochemical Societies Journal reported that quercetin may exhibit antiviral properties [14].   

·      Ginger: A 2013 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology demonstrated that fresh ginger is effective against human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV) infections, which are responsible for a wide range of respiratory illnesses including the common cold. The authors report that fresh ginger prevents infection from this virus by blocking viral attachment and internalization [15].

These findings about garlic, onions, and ginger may provide insight into the scientific basis of long-standing practices to combat the common cold such as the following traditional remedies:

o   1 to 2 cloves of fresh garlic, cup of boiling water, and honey to taste

o   1 to 2 oz. of lower white portion of green onion bulbs (scallions), cup of boiling water

o   few slices of fresh ginger, cup of boiling water, honey to taste

To learn more about ways to treat and prevent the common cold, check out Combating the Common Cold in Total Wellness’s Issue 2, Volume 12.





1. “Cold viruses thrive in frosty conditions.” nature.com/news. (2013).

2. “Cold temperature and low humidity are associated with increased occurrence of respiratory tract infections.” Resp Med. (2009).

3. “Common Cold.” niaid.nih.gov. (2011).

4. “Exposure to Cold Environment and Rhinovirus Common Cold – Failure to Demonstrate Effect.”  N Engl J Med. (1968).

5. “Acute cooling of the feet and the onset of common cold symptoms.” Fam Pract. (2005).

6. “Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro.CHEST. (2000).

7. “Chicken Soup Really Is Good for a Cold.” abcnew.go.com. (2000).

8. “Management of the virulent influenza virus infection by oral formulation of nonhydrolized carnosine and isopeptide of carnosine attenuating proinflammatory cytokine-induced nitric oxide production.” Am J Ther. (2012).

9. “Effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance.” CHEST. (1978).

10.  “Chicken Soup for Allergies and Asthma.” Coping with Asthma and Allergies. (1998).

11.  “Preventing the Common Cold With a Garlic Supplement: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Survey.” Adv Ther. (2001).

12. “Garlic for the common cold.” The Cochrane Library. (2009).

13. “Onion: Natural Protection Against Physiological Threats.” Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. (2013).

14. “Modulatory effects of plant phenols on human multidrug-resistance proteins 1, 4 and 5 (ABCC1, 4 and 5).” FEBS J. (2005).

15. “Fresh ginger (Zingiber officinale) has anti-viral activity against human respiratory syncytial virus in human respiratory tract cell lines.” J Ethnopharmacol. (2013).


This article is originally published in UCLA Student Wellness Commission Total Wellness Magazine. Click here to view the original article published in the Fall 2013 issue of Total Wellness Magazine. For more information about Total Wellness, click here to visit their webpage. 


By Shannon Wongvibulsin, BS Candidate, UCLA 2014
UCLA Center East-West Medicine, Staff Writer


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