November 2020

Flu Season Facts: Answering Questions About Elderberry

New research suggests that elderberry might not benefit patients with the flu after all. Given the soaring demand for these products, it’s important to help patients understand the evidence.

Most clinical studies evaluating elderberry for flu have been relatively small and limited to otherwise healthy adults. These studies have shown that taking elderberry can help to improve symptoms. But in new research, both adults and children with and without high-risk conditions such as asthma were evaluated. Each patient was given the elderberry product Sambucol for 5 days, starting within 48 hours of flu symptoms. Taking Sambucol didn’t shorten the duration of flu symptoms compared to placebo. These findings were surprising to some – elderberry extract is thought to have immune stimulating effects and to stop the replication of several strains of influenza viruses. It may be that people with high-risk conditions are less likely to benefit. It’s also possible that evaluating elderberry’s effect on the duration of flu symptoms, as opposed to the improvement of symptoms, might partly explain these conflicting findings.

If patients ask you about elderberry for flu, tell them that it might offer some benefits in otherwise healthy adults when taken early on. The product studied in most research is Sambucol, and it appears to be safe for most people. But explain to patients that they shouldn’t expect it to be a cure-all. Nor should they spend a significant amount of money or effort to obtain elderberry products – the double threat from the flu and COVID-19 is likely to drive up demand. And given supply chain concerns, some experts are warning that this is a recipe for increased adulteration. Remind patients that their best defense is to get a flu shot.

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