Oleander and COVID-19: Get the Facts


Dr. Todd Ellerin

Todd Ellerin, MD, Director of Infectious Disease

A close-up view of pink oleander flowers.

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its sixth month, pharmaceutical companies, governments, and healthcare organizations across the globe continue to search for new and effective treatments.

Currently, we have a far better understanding of this novel coronavirus than we did at the beginning of the pandemic, and multiple human vaccine investigations are underway.

While the scientific community’s progress is encouraging, it’s important to continue to research and develop new avenues of treatment in order to provide care for as many people as possible.

However, any research on new COVID-19 therapies must be done safely.

Perhaps due in part to the fact that COVID-19 has impacted nearly all aspects of daily life, misinformation has been a particularly tricky issue during the pandemic. 

In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has an entire web page dedicated to dispelling myths about COVID-19!

One of the more troubling trends with COVID-19 misinformation has been the promotion of unproven treatments for the virus.

These theories and proposals have, in some cases, spread like wildfire across the internet, potentially putting people in danger.

Oleander is the latest of these theories, and is one that has the potential to cause serious harm.

What is oleander?

Oleander is a plant, normally a shrub or a small tree. In the United States, it’s a common ornamental plant in southern and coastal states.

Oleander produces brightly colored flowers, which makes the plant common for eye-catching landscaping uses.

You won’t see much wild oleander in our area, as the plant doesn’t do well in temperatures below freezing. However, potted plants can be brought inside during winter.

What’s the problem with oleander?

Like many things in nature, oleander’s appearance is deceiving.

While the plant is certainly nice to look at, it’s also highly toxic to both humans and animals.

In fact, it’s recommended that households with small children or pets avoid having oleander plants anywhere near play spaces or high-traffic areas.

If animals or humans eat any part of an oleander plant, it can be fatal. For some people, just brushing up against the plant with bare skin can cause an allergic reaction.

For these reasons, it’s important to exercise extreme caution when working with oleander plants.

Why is oleander in the news?

Oleander is in the news because in recent weeks, claims have arisen that extract from the oleander plant could be used to fight COVID-19.

Like the leaves and flowers of the plant, this extract, called oleandrin, is highly toxic. 

Extracts from certain plants and flowers can have medicinal properties, but they must undergo rigorous scientific testing before they can be approved for human consumption.

In the case of oleandrin, there have been laboratory studies conducted on whether or not the extract could be effective in medicinal use.

However, it’s important to note that even a thorough laboratory study shouldn’t be considered approval for use by humans. Laboratory studies are a long way from human trials of a potential treatment for any disease.

To put it simply, we don’t know nearly enough about the effects of this extract to make it even remotely safe for human use.

Can oleander fight COVID-19?

Currently, there isn’t enough data to back up the claim that oleander or oleandrin are effective treatments for COVID-19. 

Medical treatments, and plant-based treatments in particular, require thorough vetting and testing before they can be released to the public.

Any treatment for COVID-19 (or any other illness) needs to have a proven safety record, and we’re nowhere near that for oleander or oleandrin. 

While some pharmaceutical companies or organizations may be studying the potential of oleandrin as a medical treatment, approval for that treatment isn’t close.

Under no circumstances should you ingest oleandrin or any part of the oleander plant.

Todd Ellerin, MD is Director of Infectious Disease at South Shore Health.