Make Your Own Immune-Boosting Cough Syrup


Written By

Juliette Abigail Carr

Written on

August 22 , 2014

With cold season fast approaching and the autumn harvest at hand, consider creating this tasty, family-friendly remedy for winter ailments. As well as relieving those irritating coughs, this homemade cough syrup is a powerful immune booster. Store-bought liquid cough remedies, laced with preservatives, corn syrup, and synthetic mystery ingredients, simply mask symptoms without supporting your body’s natural defenses. The immune-boosting herbs in this recipe address the root cause of coughs by strengthening your response to infections. And given that the homemade variety is reliable and easy to make using local ingredients, and that it stores well in the refrigerator, you can reap the benefits for months to come.


Honey: Raw, local honey is a key ingredient in cough syrup. As well as offering a delicious way to hide the taste of medicine, honey also contains its own unique properties that make it an ideal remedy for coughs and colds: it is antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, promotes tissue healing, and soothes the pain of a sore throat. Use raw, not processed, honey for medicine-making, because pasteurization destroys the probiotic critters and denatures many of the proteins that give honey its medicinal clout. Do not give any kind of honey to children under 1 year old due to risk of infant botulism.

Liquor or Tinctures: I recommend using Flag Hill Farm’s Pomme-de-Vie Apple Brandy, Vermont Spirits No. 14 Apple Brandy, or Whistlepig Distillery Rye Whiskey. The liquor acts as a preservative, as well as adding a warming, soothing aspect to your formula. Alternatively, consider adding herbal tinctures. You can make them yourself or purchase locally made tinctures at your food co-op or farmers’ market. Tinctures will act as a preservative, just as liquor does, while adding additional medicinal benefits. To strengthen your formula, use the immune-boosting herbs listed below.

Herbs: The herbs listed below all grow in Vermont. You can purchase them from your local herbalist, an herb farm, or at your food co-op. You can also harvest them yourself; just be sure to read about ethical wildcrafting before you set out—there are specific ways to harvest without decimating plant populations, and it’s essential to know how to harvest and process each herb before you start. If you are concerned about the safety of an herb, discuss it with a knowledgeable professional.

Wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina) has long been famous as a cough suppressant and tonic for the respiratory system. It tones and relaxes the smooth muscle of the bronchi (the passages between the lungs and throat) to ease uncontrollable, spasmodic coughing. It is most appropriate for hacking, unproductive coughs, but it is widely used whenever coughing is an issue. Folklore tells us that when pharmaceutical cough syrups were first introduced, customers didn’t trust them until the company made them cherry flavored, because cherry was such a well-known cough remedy.

Cherry has some safety issues, as it contains small amounts of cyanide (technically cyanogenic glycosides) as do other members of the rose family, including apples, peaches, and almonds. The highest concentration of cyanide is in the seeds, which are not used for medicine. Cherry must be taken in very high doses to have a harmful effect. It lowers blood pressure by relaxing the smooth muscle of blood vessels, just as it relaxes the bronchi, so folks who take blood pressure medications should be aware that it can contribute to dizziness when you stand up (orthostatic hypotension). It is not safe in pregnancy due to potential harmful effects to the fetus.

Elecampane (Inula helenium) has a long tradition of use for coughs. It is a warming, aromatic expectorant and respiratory anti-inflammatory, with a stimulating, spicy flavor. It’s a great ally against thick, stuck chest congestion—the type where you’d feel better if you could just knock the gunk loose. It is also used to calm persistent, irritable coughs, especially those related to chronic conditions. It may not be safe in pregnancy, although this is speculation based on some of its chemical compounds; consult a professional or avoid it.

By late summer, the ditches and hedgerows of Vermont offer plenty of this dramatic plant—tall and stately with sunflower-like blooms and very large leaves. Dig the root in the fall as the plant dies back. Most herbalists will have this root for sale in the fall, especially if you let them know you’re looking for it. If you can’t find elecampane, our lovely Northern Prickly Ash makes a good substitute.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis or S. nigra) has become one of the most widely used herbs in the world, thanks in part to extensive research on its benefits. Numerous studies confirm elderberry’s long tradition of use as an antimicrobial immune stimulator. Elderberry might not make you feel better, but it may help you get better, faster. It is used internationally as a daily preventive against winter ailments and in larger doses to help lessen the duration and severity of infective illnesses. It is safe for children and pregnant women. Although it does not specifically ease coughs, I always add it to cough syrups with the hope of lessening the duration of my family’s misery.

Elder bushes are easy to identify with their compound leaves, graceful July flowers (helpful at easing cold symptoms), and dark purple-black fruit. Only the flowers and ripe fruit are medicinal; the rest of the plant can make you sick. It is extremely important not to confuse the black European or American elderberry with the poisonous red elderberry, which has more cone-shap flowers and red berries (drupes). If the fruit isn’t black, it’s not safe. Again, red = poisonous.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is a sweetly aromatic member of the mint family. There is something so uplifting about its calming fragrance, honeyed taste, and the sight of those tiny purple-blue flowers floating in the teacup—it never fails to soothe the minds and hearts of my loved ones, along with their sinuses, throats, and lungs. As an expectorant, hyssop stimulates coughing to bring up stuck yuckiness. It is astringent, so it has a drying, anti-inflammatory effect on the special skin inside the nose, throat, and so on, making it particularly helpful against wet congestion of the lungs and sinuses.

Hyssop is relatively easy to grow in your perennial garden and will often bloom the first year. It is also easy to buy from your local herbalist or co-op. Hyssop is not safe in pregnancy.

Read more about the medicinal uses of honey, in-depth explanations of ideas touched on in this article, and a whole lot more about making your own medicine at oldwaysherbal.com/blog.

Immune-Boosting Cough Syrup

At its heart, syrup is sweet medicinal tea. This recipe yields roughly 15 oz. that contain tea, honey, and tincture or liquor. You can leave out the liquor if you prefer; it will still work, but you should use it right away and it won’t be as strong.

  • 6 oz. raw honey
  • 3 oz. liquor, or 1.5 oz. each of elderberry tincture and cherry tincture
  • cherry bark, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
  • elecampane root, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
  • hyssop flowering tops, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
  • elderberries, 1 T dried or 2 T fresh
  • Tools:
  • double-boiler
  • mesh strainer, or colander lined with cheesecloth
  • potato ricer (recommended)
  • glass jars
  • labels, or paper covered in packing tape
  • patience and an assistant to lick the pot

Heat honey in the top of a double boiler over low heat. Add about half of each herb. This is flexible and should be adjusted to taste. Cover and heat on low for several hours. Do not allow temperature to rise above 110 degrees. I infuse it all day, but this isn’t strictly necessary. The longer, the better.

As honey is infusing, put the other half of the herbs in a jar and add 6 oz. of boiling water, then cover and steep (infuse). When honey and water are both fragrant and you’re sick of waiting, strain honey and infusion together into a quart jar. Use the potato ricer to press the strained herbs, removing the last, strongest medicine.

Let mixture cool, then add tinctures or liquor. Volume can be adjusted to taste. Label and store in a cool, dark pantry or the fridge.


Adults, give 1 to 2 tablespoons every 4 to 6 hours.
Children, give ½ to 1 teaspoon, 3 to 4 times per day.


About the Author

Juliette Abigail Carr

Juliette Abigail Carr

Juliette Abigail Carr is a clinical herbalist in South Newfane and the proprietor of Old Ways Herbal. She teaches about family herbalism and homesteading at her family’s farm and locations around the state. Read more and contact her on her blog.

Comments (1)

  • Lisa Harris

    11 September 2014 at 14:53 |
    Great info! I make an elderberry syrup each winter to take in lieu of a flu shot. I recently found a recipe for elderberry, honey, and brandy tonic that I'm trying for longer storage. I like how you mix tinctures in the syrup. That opens up so many more possibilities for addressing more symptoms. Good stuff! I also love your writing - Thank you!


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