Elderberries and a jar of elderberry syrup lie on a floral cloth on a table. Share on Pinterest
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Elderberry has long been used in folk medicine to treat ailments ranging from insect bites to hemorrhoids.

More recently, though, elderberry has seen a surge in popularity as a remedy that may boost immune system function.

Some sources have even hailed elderberry supplements as a “cure” for the common cold.

This article will take a closer look at the current research into elderberry’s effectiveness at boosting your immune system and treating seasonal cold and flu symptoms.

Elderberry is a family of flowering shrub species native to North America and Europe. Also known as elder, these plants produce bunches of tiny berries that are dark in color — usually purple, blue, or black.

Traditionally, elderberry has had many uses, both medicinal and otherwise. In medieval Europe, elderberry was thought to promote longevity.

Among Native Americans, its fruit and flowers were used to treat pain and fever, while twigs and branches were used to construct baskets, flutes, and arrow shafts.

Although elderberries are known for their medicinal properties, the berries can be toxic when consumed raw. However, most species are safe to eat when cooked.

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Elderberries typically have a tart flavor and are used in:

  • jams
  • jellies
  • sauces
  • wines
  • pies

They are also commercially harvested and sold in products such as:

  • gummies
  • lozenges
  • syrups
  • supplements
  • teas

Although the evidence is limited, current research seems to indicate that elderberry may possess properties that help fight off the flu virus and ease cold and flu symptoms.

For example, a 2011 study investigated the antimicrobial properties of liquid elderberry extract in a laboratory setting.

The researchers reported that the extract prevented the growth of certain types of strep bacteria and influenza (flu) viruses.

Similarly, a 2012 test-tube study reported that elderberry has several properties that allow it to fight off the flu.

And, according to a 2017 study, the plant’s branches and berries contain potent antioxidants.

Other studies have evaluated the effects of elderberry on cold and flu symptoms in humans.

A randomized, double-blind 2016 study compared the effects of a placebo versus an elderberry supplement among 312 airline passengers.

There were no significant differences in who developed a cold after airline travel.

However, the researchers reported that people in the placebo group tended to have longer and more severe colds than those in the elderberry group. They concluded that more research is needed to confirm this effect.

A 2018 research review reported that elderberry supplements helped to relieve upper respiratory symptoms such as:

  • runny nose
  • nasal congestion
  • cough

However, this study only evaluated data from 180 participants. A larger sample size is needed to understand whether these effects apply to most people.

Although the current evidence seems promising, more research is needed to understand how effective elderberry is for treating colds and the flu.

It’s important to remember that while elderberry could potentially help with flu symptoms, it is not a substitute for the annual flu shot.

Elderberry is highly nutritious. It’s a good source of vitamin C and dietary fiber, while being low in carbs and fat.

And like other berries, elderberries contain potent antioxidants, including:

Antioxidants are believed to play a role in preventing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Due to limited data, elderberry isn’t currently recommended for children under 18 years old.

Although no serious side effects have been reported, there isn’t enough clinical evidence at present to confirm that elderberry is safe over the long term for children.

If you’re pregnant or nursing, consult your doctor before taking elderberry.

The recommended dosage of elderberry will depend on several factors, including the:

  • manufacturer of the supplement
  • product type
  • elderberry content of the product

For example, a recommended serving size of elderberry syrup is 2 teaspoons (10 milliliters) per day containing 3.8 grams of elderberry.

For lozenges, one manufacturer recommends taking 1 lozenge (4 grams) containing 12 milligrams as needed up to four times per day.

Always read and follow the dosage instructions from the manufacturer.

What to know about supplements

Keep in mind that elderberry is classified as a dietary supplement by the FDA.

While supplement manufacturers are required to follow certain quality standards, supplements aren’t tested to ensure that the content on the label matches the product content.

As a result, it can be difficult to know for sure how much of a particular active ingredient a supplement actually contains.

For these reasons, it’s best to buy a product from a reputable and established brand that’s been certified by a testing body such as the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International.

If you’re unsure whether elderberry is safe for you, talk with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any elderberry supplements.

There isn’t a lot of safety information available regarding commercial elderberry supplements.

Supplements are generally considered to be safe when consumed according to the package instructions, but it depends on the manufacturer and the product contents.

Elderberries can have serious side effects if the berries are eaten raw. Side effects can include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

Ingesting too much uncooked elderberry can be fatal. This can be avoided by cooking elderberries thoroughly before consuming them.

Elderberry has shown some promise in treating upper respiratory symptoms associated with colds and the flu. It may also have the ability to reduce the severity of cold and flu symptoms.

However, more studies are needed to confirm the dosage, safety, and efficacy of elderberry supplements.

If you have questions or concerns about the safety of elderberry, or want to learn more, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider.