If you’ve spent any time on social media recently, you’ve likely scrolled past the internet’s trendiest cold and flu treatment: elderberry. Served as syrups, capsules and teas, it’s being endorsed by influencers all over the globe as “the” treatment for cold and flu.
Elderberry might be all the rage, but is it safe? We spoke with Kelly Erdos, clinical pharmacist at Banner Baywood Medical Center Medication Management Clinic, to learn more.
What is Elderberry?
Elderberry has been used as a folk remedy for centuries, and it holds special importance in a number of Native American, European and North African cultures. Writings by Hippocrates dating back to 400 A.D. even reference the berry’s health benefits.
Several different types exist, though Sambucus Nigra, or European Elder, has been researched the most. Elderberries are available in many different forms, though it’s most commonly used as a syrup, throat lozenge or tea. Many make the berries into their own at-home cold and flu treatments, however, “products should not contain raw elderberry as it can be toxic,” Dr. Erdos cautioned.
Elderberry is considered an herbal supplement, which means it doesn’t have to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be sold in stores.
Antioxidant and Antiviral Properties
Erdos explained that, like many fruits and vegetables, elderberry is also said to be high in antioxidants, the body’s natural defense against atomic elements called free-radicals.
“When free-radicals accumulate, they can cause damage to the body, which is referred to as oxidative stress,” Dr. Erdos said. “Over time, this damage may increase the chance of developing chronic health diseases. It is also thought that this oxidative stress can increase the risk for things like the cold and flu.”
Elderberry is also considered to have a number of antiviral properties. The berry is thought to contain a specific protein (hemagglutinin) that has been shown to prevent a virus from causing an infection. Hemagglutinin not only protects you from catching viruses, it also stops viruses from spreading, which can help shorten the duration of an illness.
So, is it safe?
“Overall, everyone is different, and elderberry may be a good option for some patients but not others,” Dr. Erdos said. “There is no medication that is 100% safe or free of potential harm.
"Some small trials, like this Australian study, have shown elderberry can shorten the duration of symptoms for people with a cold or the flu.
Dr. Erdos cautioned that, while the results seem promising, these studies are small, and larger scale research is needed. Especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, the safest choice is to talk to your Banner Health doctor about any changes in medications including prescription, over the counter and herbal supplements, like elderberry.