Elderberry syrup has been around forever as a folk remedy, but it’s suddenly gained new popularity as a flu remedy. The question is, does it work? 

We asked Russell Greenfield, MD, of Novant Health Integrative Medicine. He said while extract products like syrups, gummies, lozenges, pills or teas are no substitute for getting an annual flu shot, that there is evidence that elderberry products do indeed ease flu symptoms.  

Studies indicate that “a good quality elderberry extract product might be quite effective in shortening the duration and the severity of symptoms associated with the flu if taken within the first 24 hours of symptoms,” Greenfield said.

“In at least one study, elderberry extract compared favorably to Tamiflu,” said Greenfield, noting that Tamiflu has been studied much more extensively.

Greenfield said patients suffering flu symptoms should contact their doctor before trying elderberry extract products to treat symptoms.

How might it work?

Greenfield said that elderberry extract has antiviral activity as well as anti-inflammatory activity, which lends it to potentially shortening the duration of cold and flu symptoms. “Most cold and flu symptoms are not due to the virus itself but to the body’s inflammatory response to the virus,” Greenfield said. “Damping down the inflammation might help people with the flu feel better.”

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Dr. Russell Greenfield

Possible side effects

Greenfield said it’s important for patients to use some caution when buying herbal remedies such as elderberry products. For example, he said elderberry extract products can be unsafe if leaves, stems, unripe fruit or uncooked fruit are consumed and that ingesting those uncooked or improperly prepared can lead to vomiting and diarrhea.

“I recommend using specific elderberry extract products that have been tested and where there has been adherence to good manufacturing practices,” he said. He recommends ConsumerLab.com for trusted information. While the site offers some free information, you need an annual $42 subscription to get more detailed information.  

Nothing new under the sun

Fans of classic rock may have already heard of elderberry.

There was Elton John’s 1973 song “Elderberry Wine.”

The Rolling Stones got in on the trend, as well, with a line on their 1974 song “Till the Next Goodbye.” “Some cider vinegar and some elderberry wine, may cure all your ills but it can't cure mine,” Mick Jagger sang on the track from their 1974 album, “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll.”

While news reports about elderberry keep resurfacing (regarding extracts, not wine), Greenfield said he’s been asked about the fruit extract since he started practicing integrative medicine more than 20 years ago. Elderberry, he says, has been used as a folk remedy for centuries.

Looking to get a flu shot? Find a provider.