By Emily Venezky February 27, 2020

Homeopathic supplements are not proven to treat the flu

If Your Time is short

  • These homeopathic supplements have been shown in some small studies to help relieve symptoms of flu and respiratory infection. But there are not enough trials to conclusively call them medications.

  • Doctors agree that Sambucol has the most flu-fighting potential, while there is little evidence that Oscillococcinum can considerably shorten the length of the flu.

You wouldn’t expect drops that taste like "sweet tarts" or elderberry syrup to cure anything, but one Facebook post claims that these homeopathic supplements can rid you of flu symptoms after only three days.

This post, which has been shared more than 70,000 times, was flagged by Facebook as part of efforts to combat false news and information on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

The post from Nov. 15, 2019, claimed that Sambucol, an elderberry extract, and Oscillococcinum, a diluted duck heart and liver pill, offer flu relief.

"A nurse friend taught me this," the post says. "If you have the Flu… get these two items… Sambucol [and] Oscillococcinum… in 48 hours you will feel better. In 72 hours you will be almost symptom-free."

The medical community is still debating how effective these supplements are, with a few small studies showing positive results. While doctors agree that Sambucol has the most flu-fighting potential, there is little evidence that Oscillococcinum can considerably shorten the length of the flu.

Both Sambucol and Oscillococcinum’s websites note that their claims to treat influenza symptoms "have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration." 

The Mayo Clinic recommends using an antiviral drug like Tamiflu if you "have severe infection or are at higher risk for complications."

Effectiveness of Sambucol

Sambucol is an elderberry extract that originates in folk medicine, where elderberries were used to treat various illnesses, including sinus congestion, sore throat, common cold and rheumatism. Elderberries contain tannins and viburnic acid, which have been shown to help with nasal congestion and to improve respiration. They also have one of the three highest anti-inflammatory capacities ever seen in fruit or berries, according to a study from the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

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A study in 2001 found that Sambucol has antiviral properties and was connected to an increase in the inflammatory cytokines found in patients’ blood, effectively activating the immune systems of influenza patients.

A small 2004 study of the healing properties of Sambucol in Norway found that otherwise-healthy flu patients treated with the elderberry extract had symptom relief on average four days earlier than the placebo group. Patients treated with Sambucol had no symptoms after 48 to 72 hours. The study found that Sambucol "seems to offer an efficient, safe and cost-effective treatment for influenza." The study included only 80 influenza patients, and the administrators called for a larger study of elderberry extracts to verify their findings.

Effectiveness of Oscillococcinum

Oscillococcinum is made from highly diluted heart and liver of wild duck, but essentially no molecules of duck heart or liver are found in the actual pill, according to Pharmacy Times. Cochrane, an independent health care research center, did a review of Oscillococcinum trials in 2015. Cochrane found that Oscillococcinum did not prevent the flu in preventative trials, and that the trials that "proved" the supplement helped with flu symptoms were biased because they were performed by employees at Boiron, the company that produces Oscillococcinum.

A study in Italy in 2018 did use Oscillococcinum to treat patients with respiratory tract infections and found that patients taking the supplement had fewer RTI episodes than patients without treatment. Their study spanned an eight-year period with 455 patients and found that it had the potential to save health center funds, with "significantly lower costs in the patient population being treated." 

Our ruling

A post claims, "If you have the Flu… get these two items… Sambucol [and] Oscillococcinum… in 48 hours you will feel better. In 72 hours you will be almost symptom-free."

Overall, Sambucol has the most flu-fighting potential, but there is little evidence that Oscillococcinum can considerably shorten the length of the flu. And there isn’t enough evidence to prove that either of them can treat influenza better than antiviral medications. 

The post’s claim has an element of truth but leaves out critical context. We rate it Mostly False.

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Homeopathic supplements are not proven to treat the flu

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