In mid-September 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a strange warning that boiled down to this: Don't cook your chicken in NyQuil. It's not safe.
The FDA's warning came in response to an alleged social media trend known as the "NyQuil chicken challenge" (or "#sleepychicken challenge"), which consists of TikTok users posting videos of themselves cooking chicken in NyQuil, an over-the-counter cold and flu remedy, and eating it.
As of this writing, however, we haven't seen evidence that it was a real trend (by "real trend," we mean evidence exists that more than just a few people actually participated by cooking and eating chicken marinated in NyQuil). It appears to have been little more than a meme originally posted in jest that took on a life of its own as a moral outrage media story.
Food and culture site Eater observed in a Sept. 22, 2022, article that TikTok had taken down posts and slapped a warning label on searches for "sleepy chicken" or "NyQuil chicken." But before the platform took that action, most of the existing videos on the topic appeared to show users' reactions to only a handful of actual posts that involved cooking with NyQuil, which suggests that only a few videos were made, and those few went viral.
One such post that has been shared widely was originally posted back in 2020, and seems to have been clearly made as a joke. In the video, a TikTok user instructs viewers to douse chicken with "four-thirds" of the bottle of NyQuil and employs a hair straightener like a pair of tongs to flip the chicken. For extra gross-out effect at the end of the video, the TikToker pours leftover NyQuil out of the chicken pan back into the bottle.
Eater also points to the online database Know Your Meme, which traces NyQuil chicken back to a 2017 Twitter post that was also intended as a joke.
According to Know Your Meme, NyQuil chicken has popped up online intermittently since, bouncing from the trolling message board 4chan to online channels and forums dedicated to disgusting food debacles. NyQuil chicken appeared in 2019, for example, on Reddit's "shittyfoodporn" forum. It caught the attention of some news outlets in January 2022, before going viral again in September 2022.
We reached out to TikTok asking whether it had seen evidence of an actual trend on their platform, but didn't receive a response. We will update if and when we do. We also reached out to the FDA asking if the agency received any reports of people consuming NyQuil chicken. An FDA spokesperson said the agency's warning communicated "how to keep children safe and prevent potentially harmful trends" and was proactive in nature.
Regardless of whether NyQuil chicken is a real trend or not, the FDA warned that cooking chicken in NyQuil could be dangerous, because if one chooses to do so, one could end up consuming far more than the recommended doses of the ingredients in the medicine. In 2020, the FDA similarly warned about a Benadryl social media "challenge" in which teens dared each other to overdose on the antihistamine Benadryl and post their reactions online. As we reported in 2020, that challenge was allegedly tied to the death of at least one person and the hospitalization of three others.
From the FDA's September 2022 warning about NyQuil chicken:
The challenge sounds silly and unappetizing — and it is. But it could also be very unsafe. Boiling a medication can make it much more concentrated and change its properties in other ways. Even if you don’t eat the chicken, inhaling the medication’s vapors while cooking could cause high levels of the drugs to enter your body. It could also hurt your lungs. Put simply: Someone could take a dangerously high amount of the cough and cold medicine without even realizing it.