Oct. 24, 2001 -- Influenza -- 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 meet FDA standards, studies on oscillococcinum have been encouraging. Sambucol has also looked promising in preliminary investigations.
Oscillococcinum is the No. 1 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 nearly 18% of those taking oscillococcinum were symptom-free the day after treatment began, compared with 6.6% of those taking placebos. In a similar study published in the March 1989 issue of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, about 25% of those with mild to moderate symptoms had recovered by the second day, compared to nearly 12% 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 says you can also take oscillococcinum with over-the-counter preparations, prescription medications, or other natural remedies without worrying about drug interactions.
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 human tests, 35 healthy people were given four tablespoons of Sambucol daily for three days, and researchers recorded no side effects. Twenty-seven people 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. No one had received a flu shot.
Of those taking Sambucol, 90% 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 both influenza A and B viruses. But two new treatments have been approved for both viruses. When taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms, these two new antivirals -- Relenza and Tamiflu -- have been shown to reduce the length of illness caused by both type A and type B viruses. Relenza also appears to cause no significant side effects. Prior to these new treatments, amantadine and rimantadine were the only other drugs on the market for flu, but they treat only influenza A.
But many people aren't ready to toss out their alternative remedies yet. Unlike Relenza and Tamiflu, 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, MD, professor of medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. 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.