During cold and flu season, when your throat feels scratchy, your nose is stuffy and you’re achy and tired, your first instinct may be to reach for a bowl of chicken soup. Many people rely on chicken soup when they’re sick, not just for its familiar, pleasing flavor but for its soothing, healing qualities. (In fact, some kosher delis describe chicken soup on their menus as “Jewish penicillin.”) But is the soup actually good for you, or are reports about its benefits merely old wives’ tales?
“Chicken soup has specific medicinal qualities, and if you doubt it, ask your grandmother,” says Murray Grossan, MD, an otolaryngologist in Los Angeles. “It’s an old remedy, of course.”
Some research confirms the commonly held notion that chicken soup may help you feel better when you have an upper respiratory infection. One study, which studied the effects of homemade chicken soup on neutrophils (white blood cells that fight infection in the body) in a laboratory setting, suggests that chicken soup may have anti-inflammatory properties, which may help to ease cold and flu symptoms.
“Chicken soup, in the lab, can block some of the cells that are present in inflammation,” says study author Stephen Rennard, MD, professor in the internal medicine division of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Medicine in Omaha. “If this happened when people eat the soup, it is possible there could be less inflammation and fewer symptoms.”
Rennard’s study also examined the properties of individual components of the soup—the chicken itself and various vegetables—and found that they all had some anti-inflammatory properties, although the researchers weren’t able to single out a specific ingredient which could be considered the sole active ingredient. “There appear to be many,” Rennard says.
His research also found that several varieties of canned chicken soup possess some of the same beneficial qualities as homemade soup, suggesting that canned soup may be effective against upper respiratory infections. This is good news when you’re under weather and don’t feel like making soup from scratch. (When buying canned soup, look for low-sodium varieties.)
Eating chicken soup when you’ve got cold or flu-like symptoms may also have these positive effects on your health:
Clearing your nasal passages
Some research has shown that inhaling the steamy vapor from chicken soup helps to clear the nasal passages more effectively than vapor inhaled from a cup of hot water. Within the study, both chicken soup and hot water were found to be more effective at clearing the nasal passages than cold water.
“Hot chicken soup, either through the aroma sensed at the posterior nares [within the nose] or through a mechanism related to taste, appears to possess an additional substance for increasing nasal mucus velocity,” the study authors wrote within their paper.
Helping you stay hydrated
You may not feel like drinking when your throat feels sore, so you may cut back on your usual beverage intake to avoid swallowing. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who are sick—whether with a cold, the flu, or mild COVID-19—should stay well-hydrated.
“During illness, you actually need an increase in fluid, since fluids are depleted through the extra mucus loss,” says Leslie Urbas, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Jacksonville, Florida. “Soup helps to maintain adequate hydration.”
Hot soup may be easier to tolerate than cold beverages, since it soothes your throat when it goes down. And chicken soup may keep you hydrated for longer than your usual drinks do. “The sodium in the soup can help increase your body’s ability to hold onto water, which is needed at this time,” Urbas says.
Providing emotional comfort
If you don’t feel well, eating the same sick-day foods that your mom served you when you were a kid may help to lift your spirits. Some research has shown that comfort foods, including chicken soup, are associated with interpersonal relationships, and consuming soup (or other comfort foods) may make you feel less lonely.
“Chicken soup can be comforting and help improve mood during illness, which, in turn, will increase your body’s ability to fight off the illness,” Urbas says. “I would imagine that if you are sick with COVID-19, flu, or a common cold, the emotional connection to the chicken soup will still help to improve the mental conditions of the patient.”
Sometimes when you’re sick, you may be lucky enough to have an empathetic loved one prepare or serve you chicken soup, which may lift your spirits. “Getting the positive social support that often accompanies chicken soup is not a placebo and has recognized benefits,” Rennard says. “Having support when sick is a good thing with clear benefits, whether the soup is medicine or not.”
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.