Is Elderberry Effective for Natural Cold and Flu Defense?

Elderberry helps boost the immune system and treat symptoms of flu.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Credit: Ingeborg Knol/ImageBROKER/Getty Images

Long used as an herbal remedy for colds, flus, and sinus infections in alternative medicine, elderberry is rich in powerful antioxidants known as anthocyanins. Preliminary studies suggest that elderberry extract may offer virus-fighting, immune-stimulating, and anti-inflammatory effects.

What Are Elderberries?

Elderberries are the berries of the elderberry tree.

These small, ornamental trees are often cultivated for their beauty as well as their medicinal properties. Elderberry juice is used to make jellies, wine, cordials, and candies as well as medicinal syrup, cough drops, and capsules. Elderberry extract is also used in Chinese Traditional Medicine for treatment of coughs and flu. Because the elderberry itself is rather sour, it is usually mixed with sugar to make it palatable (much like cranberries). 

Fighting Flu with Elderberry

There hasn't been a great deal of human-based research on elderberry's effectiveness in treating the flu, but several studies indicate that the herb shows promise as a flu-fighter. In a 2004 study of 60 people suffering from flu-like symptoms, for instance, scientists found that those who used elderberry extract for five days (taking 15 ml in syrup form four times daily) saw their symptoms subside four days earlier than study members assigned to a placebo.

Although research suggests that elderberry extract may reduce the flu's severity and shorten its duration, there's no evidence that the herb can prevent the flu.

Since the influenza virus can lead to serious health problems (including pneumonia, a potentially life-threatening condition), it's critical to seek medical treatment if you're experiencing flu symptoms such as fever, extreme tiredness, and body aches.

For milder symptoms or the common cold, however, Elderberry may be a useful supplement.

Other Benefits

Elderberry may help boost immunity by increasing the body's production of cytokines (proteins involved in regulating the immune system's response to disease and infection), according to a 2001 study on the elderberry extract Sambucol®. The study's authors suggest that Sambucol® may deliver an immune-enhancing effect when administered to people with cancer or AIDS, but this theory still needs to be tested in clinical trials.


Available in syrup and capsule form, elderberry can cause mild indigestion or allergic reactions in some individuals. However, such side effects are rare. The long-term safety of elderberry supplements is unknown.

Children and teenagers should avoid using elderberry.

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label. Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get additional tips on using supplements here.

Can Elderberry Be Used to Treat the Flu?

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend elderberry in the treatment of the flu. If you're considering using it, talk to your doctor to weigh the potential risks and benefits. Keep in mind that alternative medicine should not be used as a substitute for standard care. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.


Barak V, Halperin T, Kalickman I. "The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines: I. Inflammatory cytokines." European Cytokine Network 2001 12(2):290-6.

Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. "Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections." Journal of International Medical Research 2004 32(2):132-40.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.