Can Elderberry and Other ‘Alternative’ Medications Treat Colds and Flu?
Doc Smitty looks at flu alternatives moms have been asking about
If you aren’t crazy about Tamiflu, I get it. Except for in specific cases, I’m not either.
But I’ve been asked about some other treatment options. Do they work? Are they safe?
When it comes to “alternative” medications, I try to keep an open mind; but, I basically divide them into three categories:
1. Yep, go for it - Treatment options that have been studied and shown to be safe and effective in kids (or in adults but with reasonable belief it would also be safe and effective in kids).
2. Meh, if you want, go ahead – Treatment options with mixed studies or no studies proving effectiveness but no studies or reason to believe that they would harm kids.
3. Nope, not a chance – Treatment options that have no studies and no logical pathway by which they could be effective and/or any reason to believe they could be harmful for kids.
Let’s look at a few alternatives:
There are some VERY small studies (less than 50 patients) in adults that showed some improvement in flu systems for people already diagnosed with the flu but treated with elderberry within 48 hours of symptom onset.
I cannot find any studies addressing its use in kids or an appropriate dose. Also, despite its frequent use as a preventive option, I can’t find studies that support elderbery will decrease you or your child’s likelihood of getting the flu. I also haven't found a study that says it is safe to give over long periods of time.
So for me, it’s “Meh, if you want, go ahead.” I wouldn’t spend my money on it and I definitely wouldn’t give it over long periods of time for prevention, but I won’t give you a lecture if you are using it over short periods to treat flu-like symptoms.
What is it? It’s a homeopathic medicine (meaning it’s a super diluted substance which supposedly maintains an imprint of the original chemical makeup) made initially from anas barbarae hepatis et cordis extractum 200C, which sounds impressive but is actually Muscovy duck liver. Keep in mind that the mixture is so dilute, it’s actually very unlikely that there is any duck liver present in the little tablets you put in your mouth. But, even if there was, just research how the guy came up with the reason for using duck liver and you’ll understand that there wasn’t much science or even logic that went into the idea in the first place. Large systematic reviews of the studies for use of oscillococcinum for both prevention and treatment of flu have shown no evidence that it works for either.
Fortunately because this is a homeopathic medication (and mostly sugar), there are no major side effects with its use. Because of that, I was tempted to put it into the “Meh” category. But because its use defies all science and logic, I just can’t, so it’s, “Nope, not a chance.”
Essential oils for treatment of symptoms/flu
We’ve covered this one…extensively. Our first post on it is called “Essential Oils and Their Use in Children.” Then you can read, “How safe are essential oils for children?” And finally, “Essential oils and children –more questions answered.” If you don’t have time or interest in reading those, here’s the TL;DR summary: If you use them within reason, and diffuse but don’t ingest, they are a “Meh, if you want, go ahead.”
But, you have to promise me you won’t go crazy and if things aren’t going as expected, or your child is getting worse rather than better, that you will seek help. Do you promise?
Neosporin in the nose to prevent flu
Neosporin is an antibiotic ointment. Flu is viral. There are no studies to support this. I don’t see how this could be helpful. So, “Nope.”
Besides the feeling like you got hit by a truck, one of the other most frustrating and annoying problems with the flu is the feeling of congestion so severe that it feels like you can’t breathe. Saline sinus rinses, either as a flush like a Neti-pot or spray and suction for babies, can be helpful to relieve this feeling. So, “Yep, go for it.”
The cough associated with flu can be deep and severe…but, as you probably know already, I don’t believe that any cough medicines (prescription or over-the-counter) work very well in kids and they can be harmful. So, my go to for cough for kids over one year of age? Honey. Yep, just honey. Yep, just give it with a spoon. Yep, as many times a day as you think your kids needs it. Seriously, just honey. (This might be a conversation I have daily to a parent with a look of complete and utter untrusting disbelief).
There are probably a million other alternative flu treatments out there but these are some of the common one that I get ask about.
What other alternatives have you seen?
Get to know Justin Smith, M.D.
Justin Smith, M.D., is a pediatrician in Trophy Club and the Medical Advisor for Digital Health for Cook Children's in Fort Worth, Texas. He has an active community on both Facebook and Twitter as @TheDocSmitty and writes weekly for Cook Children's checkupnewsroom.com. He believes that strategic use of social media and technology by pediatricians to connect with families can deepen their relationship and provide a new level of convenience for both of their busy lifestyles. Dr. Smith’s innovative pediatric clinic, a pediatric clinic “designed by you,” open now. Click to learn more. To make an appointment, call 817-347-8100.