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  health > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Fighting the flu with alternative remedies

January 7, 2000
Web posted at: 3:19 PM EST (2019 GMT)

In this story:


Elderberry extract

New conventional treatments


By Lynda Liu

(WebMD) -- bInfluenza -- the flu, for short -- can knock you out with its aches, pains, chills and fever. People want fast relief when it hits, and many reach for alternative treatments. Two popular ones are oscillococcinum, a homeopathic flu remedy, and Sambucol, an herbal treatment made from elderberry extract.

While neither of these alternative remedies meets U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards, studies on oscillococcinum have been encouraging. Sambucol has also looked promising in preliminary investigations.


Oscillococcinum is the number one over-the-counter flu medication in France, where it has been used for over 60 years. The medication, a dilute extract of duck liver and heart, comes in granule form. It's believed to indirectly stimulate the body's immune system and other defenses, according to pharmacist Christophe Merville, west coast branch manager of Boiron, a French manufacturer of homeopathic remedies.

A study in the April 1998 issue of the British Homeopathic Journal reported that 17.4 percent of those taking oscillococcinum were symptom-free the day after treatment began, compared to 6.6 percent of those taking placebos. In a similar study published in the March 1989 issue of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 24.6 percent of those with mild to moderate symptoms had recovered by the second day, compared to 11.9 percent of those taking placebos. No significant side effects were found in either study.

Homeopathic remedies work quickly, says Merville, and you should see an improvement in your symptoms within 48 hours. If not, you're taking the wrong extract for your condition. Merville also says you can take oscillococcinum with over-the-counter preparations, prescription medications or other natural remedies without worrying about drug interactions.

Elderberry extract

Elderberry extract contains a high percentage of three flavonoids -- naturally occurring plant substances -- that have been shown to possess antiviral properties. A study published in the winter 1995 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the flu-fighting abilities of Sambucol, a commercial elderberry extract preparation.

In the study, scientists found that Sambucol interfered with the growth of multiple strains of both influenza A and B viruses in cell cultures. In human tests, 35 healthy subjects were given four tablespoons of Sambucol daily for three days, and researchers recorded no side effects. Twenty-seven subjects were then given either Sambucol or a placebo for three days during a flu outbreak at an Israeli kibbutz. Children took two tablespoons daily and adults took four. None of the study participants had received a flu shot.

Fully 90 percent of those taking Sambucol were completely cured within three days, while most of those who took the placebo needed six days to recover.

There haven't been enough studies to confirm Sambucol's effectiveness, though. And it's still a good idea to check with your doctor about possible drug interactions.

New conventional treatments

Until recently, the flu vaccine was the only drug approved by the FDA for use against the influenza A and B viruses. But two new treatments have recently been approved, the first ones in 30 years. When taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms, these two new antivirals -- zanamivir (sold under the brand name Relenza) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu) -- have been shown to reduce the length of illness caused by both type A and type B viruses. Zanamivir also appears to cause no significant side effects.

But many people aren't ready to toss out their alternative remedies yet. Unlike zanamivir and oseltamivir, you can get oscillococcinum and Sambucol at your local health food stores without a prescription.

"I have no problem at all with people taking these things, provided that they are not materials with significant side effect risks," says Robert B. Couch, M.D., professor of medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Couch strongly recommends the flu vaccine, however, especially for the elderly and those with heart, lung or kidney disease, diabetes or a compromised immune system.

With these advances on both the alternative and conventional fronts, it's clear the flu now has some strong competition.

Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

Information about influenza
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Flu factsheet from the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease
Centers for Disease Control: Flu
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