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Can elderberry prevent the flu?

Cold and flu remedies and advice are often passed down from generation to generation. Some feed a cold and starve a fever, while others swear by gargling with salt water or eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Lately, harsh flu seasons have caused a growing number of parents to turn to an age-old, more homeopathic remedy for illness prevention: elderberries.

Elderberries are about the size of blueberries and are grown in parts of North America. When boiled down for consumption, the berry is said to stimulate the immune system, alleviating allergies and protecting against bacteria and infection. Elderberries come in many different forms, with syrups, gummies, lozenges and teas being the most popular. Because elderberries are sweet by nature, most kids who take it don’t associate it with medicine.

“I am a die-hard believer in elderberry syrup,” says Nicole Simonds of River West, who found out about elderberries through a family member. “I use it for my kids’ coughs, to boost their immune symptoms and when I feel they have something coming on.”

Dawn LaCost, of Jefferson Park, has been making her own syrup for her daughters for more than a year. Word spread quickly in her neighborhood, and LaCost eventually started a business making elderberry syrup kits. Her kits contain dried elderberries, whole cloves, chopped ginger root and cinnamon. Customers add water and their choice of honey to complete the syrup. Kits come in a mason jar labeled with instructions, ingredients and recommended dosage.

“During flu season, I suggest giving the syrup to kids once a day for immune boosting and multiple times a day when sick,” she says. “I also give it to my kids a week before going on an airplane or prior to visiting public play spaces.”

While many moms like Simonds and LaCost swear by elderberry, others are skeptical.

“Elderberry syrup is not some miracle elixir that will keep kids healthy all season,” says Portage Park mom Tanya King. “I’ve read that like most homeopathic medicines, it can have side effects like nausea, diarrhea and vomiting,”

The medical community is pretty divided on elderberry, too.

Dr. Rebecca Unger, a general pediatrician at the Northwestern Children’s Practice, says that there isn’t enough research or studies to support the theory that Elderberry prevents or shortens illness in children. While elderberry naturally has some benefits, she says one of her biggest concerns is that there are no reliable studies about its safety and proper dosage for children.

“Elderberry is not a tool we use in our medicine bag,” Unger says. “I wouldn’t even say that taking it can’t hurt because we just don’t know enough about elderberry in children. We do know, however, that getting the flu shot combined with healthy habits like handwashing and eating and sleeping healthy, all contribute to keeping illness at bay.”

Dr. Christina Knox, a chiropractor whose South Loop practice focuses on overall wellness, says elderberry is effective when taken in low doses.

“Elderberry is awesome, but should not be used daily,” she says. “Only while sick or getting sick. Then, it’s important to take a break so as not to over stimulate the immune system.”

Where do you stand on elderberry? Let us know in the comments below.

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