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Does elderberry make things worse for people exposed to COVID-19? That’s unconfirmed
The Manhattan bridge is seen in the background of a flashing sign urging commuters to avoid gatherings, reduce crowding and to wash hands in the Brooklyn borough of New York, March 19, 2020. (AP/Wong Maye-E) The Manhattan bridge is seen in the background of a flashing sign urging commuters to avoid gatherings, reduce crowding and to wash hands in the Brooklyn borough of New York, March 19, 2020. (AP/Wong Maye-E)

The Manhattan bridge is seen in the background of a flashing sign urging commuters to avoid gatherings, reduce crowding and to wash hands in the Brooklyn borough of New York, March 19, 2020. (AP/Wong Maye-E)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde March 23, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Given limited evidence at this point on what is effective or harmful to treat COVID-19, it is difficult to make a definitive claim on whether elderberry should be avoided by people exposed to the disease. 

  • The FDA on March 6 said there currently were no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products to treat or cure COVID-19.

 

In the absence of a vaccine or a known antiviral treatment for the disease caused by the coronavirus, unsubstantiated information is popping up on Facebook on what to take or avoid in case of exposure to the virus.

PolitiFact decided to look into a March 17 Facebook post flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post said: "Important! No Elderberry and no NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Motrin, Aleve, Naproxyn, etc) if you suspect you have been exposed to COVID19."

It adds: "Data showing elderberry may actually make things worse since COVID19 causes respiratory failure via a cytokine response/release. Elderberry normal increases immune response, but the process of ARDS is actually an over-activation of the immune system. Elderberry increases cytokine release. That is part of the over-reaction. Elderberry may be great for influenza, but is bad for COVID19 and serious sequela. Ibuprofen has a similar effect. Avoid it. #choosetylenol #flattenthecurve."

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The Facebook user later updated the post to clarify her advice: "I said if suspected exposure. If you are taking it, continue but consider stopping if you get exposed or get the disease."

Given limited evidence at this point on what is effective or harmful to treat COVID-19, it is difficult to make a definitive claim on whether elderberry should be avoided by people exposed to the disease.

RELATED: Will taking ibuprofen for COVID-19 cause more health problems? It’s complicated

Elderberry — a term commonly used for both the plant and the fruit it produces — is known for its natural antioxidants and vitamin C. A few studies suggest that elderberry can slightly relieve flu symptoms. (Some people consume elderberry extract in gummies or syrup.) Researchers, however, say that more studies and evidence are needed to know if there is a medically proven benefit from taking elderberry.

Does it make things worse for people exposed to COVID-19?

We asked the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the World Health Organization, whether elderberry should be avoided by someone exposed to COVID-19. We did not get a response to that from any of the organizations. The Facebook user who wrote the post did not reply to our query, either.

Two experts who got back to us said they were not aware or could not confirm whether elderberry is bad for people exposed to COVID-19.

"There are some data suggesting that COVID infection, especially later in severe illness, may have a significant cytokine surge causing or contributing to the pathology," said David Cennimo, an infectious-disease expert and assistant professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. "I am not aware of data on elderberry and cytokines or COVID specifically."

The FDA on March 6 sent a warning letter to a company that was selling herbal products to combat COVID-19, including one called "elderberry tincture." The FDA said the products were unapproved and misbranded. 

"There currently are no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)," the letter said.

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Our Sources

Facebook post, March 17, 2020

Email interview, David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert and assistant professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, March 19, 2020

Email interview, Markus Maeurer, Head Immunotherapy Programme at Champalimaud Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal, March 19, 2020

FDA.gov, warning letter

University of Rochester Medical Center, Elderberry

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Does elderberry make things worse for people exposed to COVID-19? That’s unconfirmed