Every fall and winter, when colds and flu start to spread, you see trendy treatment ideas popping up on the internet and in social media. One of the popular treatments these days is elderberry. You’ll see elderberry supplements, syrups, lozenges, capsules and teas hyped online. Do these remedies work? Or will you waste your money without seeing any relief from your sniffles, coughs and chills?
We checked in with Kelly Erdos, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa, AZ, to learn more about whether elderberry is safe and effective.
What is elderberry?
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a flowering plant that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. The antioxidants in elderberry are also found in fruits like blackberries, blueberries and strawberries, and even in the skin of black beans.
“People have been using elderberry for hundreds of years as a folk medicine remedy to treat cold and flu symptoms,” Dr. Erdos said. Hippocrates wrote about the health benefits of elderberry in 400 A.D., and elderberries are meaningful in certain Native American, European and North African cultures.
Can elderberry treat cold and flu?
Many people use elderberry for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. And some small studies have found that elderberry may shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms. But Dr. Erdos said that while results seem promising, more research is needed before we can definitively say that elderberry makes a difference: “Elderberry cannot cure a cold or flu but may be beneficial to some people for symptom relief.”
Because elderberry is high in antioxidants, it may help your body defend against free radicals. “When free radicals accumulate, they can cause what’s called oxidative stress, which can damage the body. Over time, this damage may increase your chances of developing chronic health diseases,” Dr. Erdos said. “It could also increase your risk for things like colds and flu, since if your cells are working to fight free radicals from smoke, allergens or pollution, they may not be able to fight off viruses as efficiently.” However, many fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, so you don’t necessarily need to get them from elderberry.
Elderberry contains a protein called hemagglutinin that may prevent a virus from causing infection and may stop viruses from spreading, which could reduce the duration of the time you feel sick.
Is elderberry safe?
“Everyone is different, and elderberry could be a good option for some people, but not others,” Dr. Erdos said. “There is no medication that is 100% safe.”
She recommends talking to your health care provider before you make any medication changes, including adding elderberry. It’s crucial to have this conversation if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Be sure to avoid ingesting raw elderberry—it contains substances that your body can convert to cyanide, which can be deadly.
Elderberry is considered an herbal supplement, so it doesn’t need to be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way foods are. “If you are interested in trying elderberry, look for a commercial product from a reliable brand,” Dr. Erdos said. You can choose supplements that meet independent quality standards from ConsumerLab.com, NSF or USP. But testing doesn’t prove that a product is safe or effective.
What else can I do to fight colds and flu?
“When looking at the best cold and flu treatment, it really comes down to the person. Something that may work wonders for one person may not have any benefit for another. That’s why trying to find what works best for you is important! If you are trying a new product and do not get relief after a few days, it isn’t likely to help,” Dr. Erdos said.
The tried-and-true methods of staying healthy are still your best bets. Dr. Erdos recommends:
- Washing your hands frequently
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
- Getting your yearly flu shot
- Making sure you get plenty of rest
- Choosing a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and veggies so you get plenty of antioxidants
“These habits will help build your immune system and help keep you healthy,” Dr. Erdos said.
The bottom line
More research is needed before we can say for sure that elderberry can help treat cold or flu symptoms. However, the antioxidants and proteins it contains show promise. In the meantime, wash your hands, stay away from people who are sick and get your flu shot to improve your odds of staying healthy this winter. If you would like to learn more about ways to prevent and treat cold and flu symptoms, reach out to a Banner health care provider.