Real Deal Or Snake Oil?

Does Elderberry Syrup Really Work? We Asked An Urgent Care Pediatrician

Read this before you buy a bottle from that crunchy mom friend on Facebook.

A little boy holds up elderberry, which is often touted as a natural medicine for staving off colds ...
Richard Clark/Getty Images

Moms are the ultimate problem solvers, and that comes from a strong desire to keep our kids safe, healthy, and happy. Sometimes, though, all humans can fall for tricks and gimmicks out of sheer desperation. Even moms. So, when other moms suggest elderberry will keep your kids healthy all year (especially during cold and flu season), it's easy to dive into the deep waters of their "first-hand experiences," "testimonials," and "tons of research." But does elderberry syrup work? Like, really?

The problem with alternative medicine and at-home remedies is that sometimes we get so caught up in "seeing them work" that we miss signs that they aren't working or might even be causing harm. You know how it goes. First, you're using peppermint oil alongside your migraine medicine, and it works pretty well. The next thing you know, you're delaying taking the medicine that actually works to "let the peppermint oil do its thing." Meanwhile, you're suffering longer than necessary.

The same can happen with many alternative solutions, and elderberry is no different. We all know a mom (or perhaps unfriended a mom) who thinks elderberry is all her kids need — no vaccines necessary. Once you've watched someone fall down that rabbit hole or realized you've also fallen down it, it's easy to shun all-natural anecdotes.

But is that cynicism going too far? Elderberry syrups can't stave off smallpox or polio, but could they help keep your kiddo a little safer when colds and the flu are rampant? Many doctors think so. Scary Mommy asked Dr. Tiorra Ross, a practicing urgent care pediatrician in Houston, Texas, for her expert thoughts on the matter.

Is elderberry effective at keeping kids healthy?

The short answer: yes.

"What elderberry is able to provide for kids is a boost to their immune system through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties," answers Dr. Ross. "Therefore, allowing kids' bodies to fight infections effectively and likely with less severe symptoms."

How does elderberry work?

"The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in elderberries are what help boost the immune system," Ross explains. "Antioxidants help reduce oxidative stress and fight free radicals, while the anti-inflammatory property helps reduce pain, swelling, and fever."

Is it OK to purchase homemade elderberry syrup?

"I would never recommend purchasing any supplements, medications, or natural herbs from a local mom/parenting group, etc.," cautions Ross. "When purchasing such items from a local mom, you are risking the possibility of ingesting toxic or unknown substances."

Here's what you should know about elderberry syrups: Ingesting unripe, uncooked, or even just undercooked elderberries can result in serious health risks, the least of which are nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. While it's always nice to support a "small business" or help out a local mom, there are absolutely no regulations in place for that bottle you're buying from a friend. You cannot trust that they know what to look for in ripe vs. unripe berries, nor can you guarantee they're cooking them properly or following safe, sanitary cooking practices. Buying homemade elderberry syrup can cause a world of hurt for you and your family. Why risk it?

Most local grocery stores and supplement stores carry a variety of elderberry products. Almost every big brand makes elderberry gummies in factories that will pass all government standards. In other words, you've got another excellent excuse for a Target run.

"I recommend purchasing elderberry in a store from a well-known company," says Ross. "I often recommend Hyland's Naturals Organic Elderberry Plus Gummies to my patients' families. They're all-natural, and taking two gummies a day helps the little ones not only get their immune boost from organic black elderberries, but they're also getting vitamin C and zinc."

If your kid isn't a fan of gummies and you need syrup, the market is a little smaller — but not impossible.

Is there anything better or more reliable than elderberries for immune boosting?

First and foremost, take note: Elderberries should not replace routine vaccinations. Elderberries didn't prevent smallpox or measles. They can only help so much.

"I wouldn't say there's something better or more reliable than elderberry," says Ross. "However, there are numerous vitamins that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties to help boost one's immune system. Antioxidants can also be found in vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, and selenium. Also, vitamins A, C, D, E, and K contain anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet can help boost one's immune system."

"Healthy and balanced" probably doesn't include "only eats nuggets, grilled cheese, and fish crackers," so it looks like it might be time to invest in some vitamins!