Echinacea Reduces Symptoms of Colds and Flus
Every year, millions of Americans become ill from the common cold or flu virus. Runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, headache, cough, muscle aches, and low-grade fever (less than 101?F [38.33?C]) are symptoms commonly associated with viral infections of the upper respiratory tract. While no cure exists for the common cold or flu, research suggests that taking echinacea at the first sign of infection may reduce the number of days of illness and the severity of the symptoms. Several controlled studies have shown that echinacea extracts were more effective than placebo in decreasing the symptoms caused by upper respiratory infections.1 2 3 4 When echinacea was taken at the initial onset of cold or flu symptoms, people recovered from their colds faster and had less severe symptoms. However, not all studies have found echinacea to be effective.5
A recently published review article, while acknowledging the significant number of positive studies, concludes there is “no convincing evidence” that echinacea provides benefit in the treatment of upper respiratory infections.6 However, such a conclusion, though carefully worded, has the potential to be misinterpreted or taken out of context. The author of this report (who was not named) did not claim that echinacea is ineffective, but, merely, that he or she finds the evidence supporting its use to be unconvincing. On the other hand, the German Commission E (a governing agency for herbal medicine made up of a committee of physicians, pharmacists, scientists, and herbalists that evaluates the safety, quality, and efficacy of herbs) states echinacea root and juice extracts are indicated for the supportive treatment of flu-like illnesses and upper respiratory infections.
Some practitioners of herbal medicine have advocated using echinacea to prevent colds or flus. However, there is little evidence to suggest taking echinacea during times of wellness will prevent one from catching a cold or getting the flu.7 8 Moreover, some herbalists believe that long-term use of echinacea could put stress on the immune system. Therefore, it seems most appropriate to use echinacea for treatment, but not for prevention, of colds and flus.
There has been some confusion as to which type and form of echinacea is best, since those used in studies have been inconsistent. Studies have examined three distinct types of echinacea (E. purpurea, E. angustifolia, and E. pallida), which look similar, but differ in their chemical composition. Also, different parts of the plant have been used, but primarily consist of the roots of E. angustifolia and E. pallida and the pressed juice of E. purpurea. While there is no clear evidence that one form is superior to another, the Commission E recommends taking 6 to 9 ml per day of the pressed juice of E. purpurea or 6 to 12 ml per day of a 50% alcohol extract made from the root of E. pallida.
The various types of echinacea are generally well tolerated and have few reported side effects. However, caution should be taken with people who have an underlying immune disorder, such as lupus or AIDS. Although the basis for this caution is theoretical, people with these types of conditions should consult a physician before starting treatment with echinacea or other herbal therapy.
1. Schulten B, Bulitta M, Ballering-Bruhl B, et al. Efficacy of Echinacea purpurea in patients with a common cold. A placebo-controlled, randomised, double-blind clinical trial. Arzneimittelforschung 2001;51:563–8.
2. Lindenmuth GF, Lindenmuth EB. The efficacy of echinacea compound herbal tea preparation on the severity and duration of upper respiratory and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. J Altern Complement Med 2000;6:327–34.
3. Brinkeborn RM, Shah DV, Degenring FH. Echinaforce and other Echinacea fresh plant preparations in the treatment of the common cold. A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial. Phytomedicine 1999;6:1–6.
4. Schulz V, Hänsel R, Tyler V. Rational Phytotherapy: A physicians guide to herbal medicine. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1998.
5. Grimm W, Muller HH. A randomized controlled trial of the effect of fluid extract of Echinacea purpurea on the incidence and severity of colds and respiratory infections. Am J Med 1999;106:138–43.
6. [No authors listed]. The Medical Letter. Inc. Echinacea for prevention and treatment of upper respiratory infections. Med Lett Drugs Ther 2002;44:29–30.
7. Melchart D, Walther E, Linde K, et al. Echinacea root extracts for the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections: a double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial. Arch Fam Med 1998;7:541–5.
8. Turner RB, Riker DK, Gangemi JD. Ineffectiveness of echinacea for prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 2000;44:1708–9.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of Garlic and Cholesterol: Everything You Need to Know (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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