The climbing ivy that adorns the sides of buildings has a long history of traditional medicinal use. Herbalists used ivy for such disparate conditions as arthritis, bronchitis, dysentery, and whooping cough. Topical applications of the herb were used for skin problems such as lice, eczema, and sunburn.

Ivy leaf is one of many herbs used in Europe as an expectorant, a substance said to thin mucous and thereby loosen coughs. (In the United States, the herbal product guaifenesin takes this role in almost all over-the-counter cough formulas.) Germany’s Commission E has approved ivy leaf for treatment of mucous in the respiratory passages.1 On this basis, it is often recommended for asthma, acute bronchits, chronic bronchitis, colds and flus, and other respiratory problems. Unfortunately, there is almost no evidence that ivy leaf (or, indeed, any other expectorant) actually offers meaningful benefits.2-4

Only one double-blind, placebo-controlled study of ivy leaf has been reported. (For information on why double-blind, placebo-controlled studies are essential to prove a treatment effective, seeWhy Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?) In this study, a total of 24 children withasthmareceived either placebo or ivy leaf extract twice a day for a period of 3 days.5 The results showed modest improvement in asthma symptoms as measured by formal testing.

Other studies on ivy leaf compared various forms of the product to each other, and thereby do not prove anything about efficacy.4 One double-blind study found ivy leaf equally effective as the expectorant drug ambroxol for chronic bronchitis8; however, because ambroxol itself has not been proven effective, this study proves little.3,6