When your child is up all night coughing or cannot seem to get rid of congestion, it can be a challenge to find any treatment to help them feel better. There's no cure for the common cold, and cough and cold medicines are not recommended for children under age 6.
Many parents turn to natural cold remedies to soothe their child's symptoms, and elderberry has recently become a popular option marketed to prevent and treat cold symptoms. But before you give your child any herbal supplement, you should learn more about its claimed benefits and potential risks.
What is elderberry?
Elderberry is a plant that has been used for different medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. The berries of the plant contain many healthy vitamins and nutrients, such as Vitamin C and fiber.
Today you can find elderberry syrups, gummies and more in your local pharmacy. Some people even make the syrups at home. These products are marketed as a natural remedy to fight colds, but often, these claims are not backed by clinical research.
Does elderberry have benefits for kids?
Many supporters of elderberry use say the berries have antiviral qualities that fight certain viruses, including the common cold and flu. They also claim that elderberries contain active chemicals which may boost immune function. However, no large clinical studies have proven these benefits.
"The sample size is so small that you can't draw any conclusions on the safety or effectiveness of the berries," says Michael Lee, M.D., a pediatrician with Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "There are no rigorous studies out there that prove elderberry to be effective and safe."
Is elderberry safe for kids?
One major issue with elderberry, and a reason why your pediatrician may not recommend it, is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbal supplements, including elderberry products.
"When a product is not formally regulated, it's a problem," says Dr. Lee. "There can be inconsistencies among products, and it would be difficult to validate ingredients. People can also make claims that products are helpful, whether or not they're true."
When not created and heated appropriately, elderberry products may actually pose health risks. Elderberries contain cyanide derivatives. Making your own syrup or purchasing other homemade syrup can put you at risk of cyanide poisoning, which can lead to serious illness, hospitalization or worse.
These safety risks and lack of research are what keep Dr. Lee from recommending elderberry to his patients.
"In the future, this could be a solution," says Dr. Lee, "but we need more research and regulation to know for sure that it is safe and effective."
What are safe, natural cold remedies for kids?
If you are looking for safe and effective ways to treat your child's cold symptoms, you can use some long-trusted home remedies. The best natural remedies for cough and cold in kids include:
- Breathing in warm water vapors from a warm shower to loosen mucus
- Cold items like a popsicle to soothe a sore throat
- Giving a teaspoon of honey to calm a cough in children over age 1 (honey is not safe for infants)
- Humidifier use
- Nasal saline spray to loosen congestion
- Suction for kids who cannot blow their noses
- Warm liquids to soothe sore throats
Dr. Lee recommends sticking to these tried-and-true methods rather than trying unregulated products.
What about other herbal cold remedies?
Like elderberry, many other herbal cold remedies are not regulated by the FDA. The few studies conducted on these supplements are not shown to reduce the length of cough and cold symptoms. They also aren't shown to prevent colds or flu.
Some of these remedies, such as zinc, vitamin C or echinacea, have been studied more thoroughly than elderberry. However, they have only shown minimal benefit or no benefit at all. Dr. Lee adds that most of these nutrients, like vitamin C and zinc, are found naturally in a healthy diet. As long as your child is eating well, they do not need additional vitamins or minerals.
How else can I keep my child healthy during cold and flu season?
While there's no cure for the common cold, including herbal remedies, you can take everyday precautions to help your child stay healthy during cold and flu season. You should:
- Wash your hands
- Disinfect surfaces
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get a flu shot
- Avoid close contact with sick people
- Stay rested
If you are interested in other treatments or remedies, always talk to your pediatrician first. They can help you determine what may be safe and effective for your child.
Get care now
We know that getting sick is never convenient. But now you can videoconference with a health care provider 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with Virtual Visit by Children's Health Virtual Care. Get treated right from your smartphone, tablet or computer for allergies, common colds and flu, cuts and more. Download the Virtual Visit app today.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.