Fort Worth, Texas,
06
February
2018
|
04:47 PM
America/Chicago

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:

Elderberry syrup/gummies/soup…

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.

Oscillococcinum

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.”

Sinus rinses

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.”

Honey

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.

 

 

Comments 1 - 10 (10)
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Cathy Hoogeboom
06
February
2018
How about these remedies: echinacea tea? Apple cider vinegar or baobab as preventative? Pineapple juice for throats issues? Kombucha, kefir, or other fermented things for GI ickies?
Kristen
06
February
2018
Love this info. I use elderberry to build our immune systems when things are going around my son's school class, and diffuse oils in the air to help us breathe better when we're all congested. I also do the saline and suction in my baby, who unfortunately got the flu this year. But it was interesting to get a doctor's educated take on these treatments. Sometimes, I think home remedies for illness in our little ones makes mama feel better more than it does actually help. Feeling helpless while I watch my little guys being sick is not a fun thing!
Koleen
06
February
2018
Honey is the best cough medicine. It works better than anything in my 20 years of parenting!
Sue
07
February
2018
Echinacea?

Garlic?
Laura
08
February
2018
My child is now perfected his fake cough so I will give him a spoonful of honey!
Liz Ditz
09
February
2018
Neosporin, applied inside the nose and around the nose can't prevent flu, but it is helpful when the nasal passages are dry and irritated either from dry air or from copious snot production.
Sandra Lester
10
February
2018
I read the message about coughs in kids....."So, my go to for cough for kids over one year of age? Honey." I know you said "over one year of age" but I have heard that it is dangerous to give honey to a small child. Is there any truth to this?
Albert Rogers
10
February
2018
Antibiotics when there is no bacterial infection are a BAD idea. Let's not encourage letting bacteria breed resistance to them, with inadequate and unnecesary dosing.
Justin Smith, MD
12
February
2018
Neosporin probably does work for dry nasal passages. I usually just recommend vaseline but it's probably the same idea.
Justin Smith, MD
12
February
2018
After one year of age, you are safe to use honey for cough. I've not seen any data to suggest it would be dangerous in this age group.