Looking for an herbal remedy for your allergies? Some research suggests that the herbal supplement butterbur may relieve allergy symptoms. But there are possible side effects of using butterbur. Before you try butterbur for allergies, know what to look for and how to tell if it’s safe for you.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is a large-leafed, shrub-like plant native to Europe. Extracts from the roots, leaves and stem of the butterbur plant have been used to treat migraine headaches, stomach ulcers, infections and coughs, as well as allergies and asthma. During the 14th century, butterbur was used to treat plague and fever.
Butterbur has anti-inflammatory effects that decrease histamine and leukotrienes (chemicals involved in allergic reactions). However, butterbur also contains substances that can be toxic to your liver and may cause cancer. Some butterbur products are processed to reduce the amount of these toxins.
Butterbur is also commonly known as:
- Butterfly Dock
- Bog Rhubarb
Butterbur is most commonly taken as tablets (Petadolex, Petaforce, Tesalin). It’s also available in teas, extracts, and capsules containing raw herbs. You can buy butterbur as a tablet or as part of a product that contains a mixture of herbs.
It is thought that butterbur works similarly to antihistamines by blocking the action of the inflammatory chemical histamine, which is released by your immune system during an allergic reaction. A 2004 study published in “Clinical & Experimental Allergy” reported butterbur to be as effective as the prescription drug fexofenadine (Allegra) in treating symptoms of hay fever. Another study published in the June 2005 issue of “Phytotherapy Research” showed similar results with the butterbur product Ze 339. This study showed butterbur worked as well as the prescription drug cetirizine (Zyrtec) for hay fever symptoms. In addition, butterbur tends to cause less drowsiness, a common side effect of antihistamine medications.
While results of studies on butterbur seem positive, the quality of some studies has been a matter of some debate. It is unclear whether the results are valid. In addition, butterbur studies have been limited to only a few weeks. Other clinical studies have shown no benefit from taking butterbur for allergies. No studies have been done to determine the long-term safety and effectiveness of butterbur.
Risks associated with butterbur include:
- Allergic reaction. If you’re allergic to ragweed, butterbur may actually worsen your allergy symptoms. Butterbur is related to the ragweed family of plants and may cause an allergic reaction. Don’t use butterbur if you’re allergic to ragweed, marigolds, daisies or chrysanthemums.
- Liver and kidney damage. Butterbur contains chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) that are toxic to your liver and kidneys. Long-term use of butterbur may increase your risk of liver and kidney damage. Young children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with liver or kidney disease shouldn’t use butterbur.
- Cancer. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), the toxic chemicals in butterbur, may also have cancer-causing effects.