Is Elderberry Really Good for Kids? Here’s What Parents Need to Know
If you have kids, you've probably read about elderberry syrup on social media or heard about it via your local moms' group. You may even know someone who makes their own and sells it to local parents.
Touted as a means of shortening the common cold and the dreaded flu, and easing other upper respiratory infections, elderberry is seemingly everywhere during cold and flu season.
But with parents—especially those with kids battling illness after illness or autoimmune challenges—desperate to find anything that will keep their children healthy, one has to ask: Is this herbal remedy really helpful? And is it safe? The experts weigh in.
What Is Elderberry?
Elderberry, or Sambucus nigra, is derived from the berries of the European elder tree and has long been used to boost immunity or fight off certain illnesses. Elderberry can be prepared in many forms—think teas, lozenges, even pills—but syrups and gummies are the most popular ones for children.
Does Elderberry Have Benefits?
"There may be some value in supporting the immune system with elderberry," says Aviva Romm, M.D., family medicine practitioner, herbalist, and midwife based in Berkshires, Massachusetts.
It's rich in immune-boosting nutrients, including vitamin C, and has proanthocyanidins, an antioxidant. "There may be some protective effects in taking it daily in a syrup form as an approach to immune health," adds Dr. Romm.
But elderberry is most effective in lessening symptoms, rather than preventing illness altogether, says Shuhan He, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and founder of Conduct Science and Maze Engineers. One study supports elderberry's ability to lessen the symptoms and duration of the common cold. "While you may still get sick, it may make the immune system fight off infection better, faster, and with less experienced side effects," says Dr. He.
Why Elderberry's Spike in Popularity?
Elderberry has been used for its healing and immune-boosting properties for thousands of years. "It is referred to in the Bible and known to be used as far back as the ancient Egyptians, as well as Native Americans, who used it for infections, coughs, and the common cold," says Dr. He.
Its resurgence in popularity can be because of the belief it may target pesky viral illnesses. Remember, antibiotics only treat bacterial infections like strep throat, and are not effective in treating viral illnesses, like colds and the flu.
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"In general, we have very few medications that treat viral illnesses," says Gregory Weaver, M.D., a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's in Cleveland. "There is some data that the actual components of elderberry have been looked at as either an anti-inflammatory drug and/or an antiviral drug. Specifically, there is a fair amount of data for influenza."
Does Elderberry Fight the Flu?
Several studies have compared Tamiflu and elderberry for the purpose of lessening flu symptoms or reducing the risk of getting the flu after exposure. "There is a fair amount of evidence to say that elderberry is at least as effective at Tamiflu," says Dr. Weaver.
But don't use elderberry as an excuse to let your kids skip the flu vaccine, experts caution. "It's not a substitute for a flu vaccine, and it doesn't mean that you can give your kid elderberry and they won't get sick," says Dr. Romm.
Elderberry Is Not FDA-Approved
Another thing to keep in mind? Elderberry is not FDA-approved because it's regulated as a supplement, not a drug. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn't required to approve a supplement prior to sale and companies manufacturing them are responsible for their safety and labeling them properly.
"To optimize herbal product safety, use reputable products from companies that follow current good manufacturing practices (CGMPs)," advises Dr. Romm. These companies, she says, follow specific sourcing rules and adhere to consistent production standards for supplements and are an offshoot of the GMPs that govern drug production.
Should You Give Your Kid Elderberry?
It's advised to speak with your child's doctor before starting elderberry, especially if they are immunocompromised due to an autoimmune disorder, are undergoing chemotherapy, or have another underlying health condition.
Like anything you give your kids, it's important to also be a savvy consumer. Experts warn against purchasing homemade elderberry products, as well as those made from unripe berries, or products derived from the plant's bark, leaves, or flower, due to the risk of poisoning. Instead, parents can purchase elderberry syrups from their local drug or grocery store—just ensure they are produced by a well-known, reputable company that they trust.
And try to avoid elderberry products that are sugary syrups or gummies, "because sugar is more damaging to the immune system than elderberry is beneficial," explains holistic wellness practitioner Audrey Christie, MSN, RN, CCMA in Lake Dallas, Texas.
Keep in mind: Other ways to help your kids avoid illnesses are probably ones you've heard before—good sleep, handwashing, and a healthy diet. And always remember, your kid is probably still going to get sick sometimes.
"With children, it's almost a foregone conclusion that they're going to have many more upper respiratory infections and viral infections than their parents," says Dr. Weaver. "Some of it is just unavoidable."