Soon, the coughs, sniffles and sneezes will be flying and drugstores will be well-stocked with the usual cold and flu remedies. If you tend to gravitate toward natural treatment options, you’ve probably seen elderberry products on the shelves season after season. From cough syrup to lozenges, gummies to immunity juice shots, this rich source of antioxidants is considered by some to be a Holy Grail solution for treating colds and the flu.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
But elderberries didn’t become popular overnight. Elderberry extract has been used medicinally for centuries to fight infections, clear up complexions and boost immunity. Keep reading to find out why elderberry products have become so popular and if they really live up to the hype.
What are elderberries?
Elderberries come from a tree variety known as Sambucus. The European elder, also known as Sambucus nigra or black elder, is the most common tree from this family. The berries and flowers of these trees are edible, however, elderberries have to be cooked before they’re consumed. In their uncooked state, elderberries are toxic and can cause diarrhea, vomiting and nausea.
What is elderberry used for?
In addition to treating colds and the flu, people have turned to elderberry supplements to treat:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Hay fever.
- High cholesterol.
- Sinus infections.
- Upper respiratory infections.
Elderberry has not been proven to prevent COVID-19
Some have even relied on elderberry products to help ease the effects of cancer, depression and HIV/AIDS. While people have been led to believe that elderberry can prevent COVID-19, no published research studies have evaluated the use of elderberry for COVID-19.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission have also taken action against companies that market products with unconfirmed claims of elderberry’s effectiveness against COVID-19.
What the latest elderberry study shows
Recent studies have created even more buzz around this dark purple berry. Two studies showed that elderberry extract supplements shortened the duration of the flu by four days as compared to a placebo. With these seemingly encouraging results and glowing reviews from people from all walks of life, elderberry supplement sales more than doubled between January and March of 2018 to more than $100 million dollars in the US alone.
But not so fast.
While elderberry has become a rock star in the cold and flu-fighting universe, new evidence suggests that that elderberry was not effective in reducing the severity or duration of flu symptoms.
The newest study, led by Michael Macknin, MD, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, is the largest one to date that has been done to evaluate how elderberry is used in the treatment of flu patients. It was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine just last week.
The study examined 87 patients age 5 and above who tested positive for influenza, or the flu, between the months of January 2018 and April 2019. Only 33% of patients in the study had received flu vaccines.
Patients had two or more of the following symptoms: body aches, chills, cough, fatigue, headaches, nasal congestion or sore throat. They were evaluated in an emergency room setting where they were randomly assigned to receive elderberry extract or a placebo for 5 days. They had the option to take the antiviral drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu) as well.
Patients between the ages of 5 and 12 received a placebo or 15 ml (5.7 g) of elderberry extract orally twice a day for five days. Patients over the age of 12 received 15 ml of elderberry extract four times a day for five days.
The results of the study showed no difference in the severity or duration of flu symptoms between the elderberry and placebo groups. For those in the elderberry group who didn’t take oseltamivir, it took two extra days for symptoms to subside compared to the placebo group. This contradicts previous studies which found that elderberry shortened flu symptoms by four days, demonstrating the need for further research.
Don’t skip your flu shot
The CDC estimates that the flu was associated with more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million medical visits, around 490,600 hospitalizations and close to 34,200 deaths during the 2018–2019 influenza season.
While no medicines can completely cure the flu, Dr. Macknin says the flu vaccine is the best defense against it. It’s also critical for stopping the spread of this illness throughout our communities.