What Are Elderberries (and Can They Keep You from Getting the Flu This Year)?

elderberries for cold and flu

When it comes to cold and flu remedies—zinc, echinacea, chicken noodle soup—it feels like we’ve tried them all. And while we haven’t found a miracle cure-all (yet), the idea of even one day less bound to the couch under a blanket and surrounded by tissues has us willing to try anything. That’s where the elderberry comes in.

What the heck are elderberries? You might’ve already heard of elderflower. (Remember Meghan Markle’s wedding cake?) Elderberries are the dark purple fruits from the same tree, the European elder (Sambucus nigra, if you’re fancy). The nutrient-dense berries are packed with antioxidants (like flavanols and phenolic acids), vitamins (A and C) and minerals (iron, potassium, phosphorous and copper). And they’ve been a staple in traditional medicine for hundreds of years, thanks to their supposed immune-boosting properties. 

So will they keep me from getting sick? Well, maybe. In one study, random airline passengers were given elderberry supplements for about two weeks before and during travel, and noticed shorter cold duration and reduced respiratory symptoms. In another study, adults who took four doses of elderberry syrup per day saw their flu-like symptoms disappear four days sooner than the placebo group. What we’re saying is, the final consensus is still out…but preliminary research looks pretty damn good.

Where can I get it? You can easily find elderberry supplements at groceries, pharmacies, health food stores and, of course, Amazon. We’ve seen it in syrupgummy and tablet form. 

Anything else I should know? Yep! While elderberry is considered low-risk for most people, it isn’t recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, because there’s not enough research on potential adverse effects. And while ripe, cooked elderberries are known to be safe, the leaves, stems and raw, unripe berries can be toxic (think nausea, vomiting and severe diarrhea). So stick to store-bought supplements and leave the scavenging to the pros, OK? 

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Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...