Echinacea is an herbaceous flowering plant that grows throughout the Midwestern region of North America. It is known for having bristly scales in its huge, conical seed head which looks like the spine of a hedgehog, thus giving its name, derived from the word echinos (Greek for hedgehog). There are nine species, some bred for its showy flowers. The most popular species are used as an herbal remedy for the common cold. Echinacea is one of the most popular and highest selling herbal products in the United States.
Echinacea grows in various terrains such as dry and moist prairies and open wooded areas. They are prevalent to parts of eastern and central North America. It is in this area that archaeologists have found evidence that suggests Native Americans have used Echinacea for medicinal purposes for over 400 years. The applications for this medicinal herb initially ranged from healing wounds and curing infections. Eventually Echinacea became accepted as a general “cure-all”. Through history, it has been used to treat various diseases and conditions such as: blood poisoning, syphilis, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and malaria. The Echinacea herb saw a spike in popularity during the 18th and 19th century, yet saw a sharp decline in use at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of penicillin. Interestingly enough, Echinacea preparations became a popular treatment in Germany during the 20th century. It is in Germany where the bulk of the medical research on Echinacea has taken place. Currently, it is used to reduce the symptoms of the common cold, flu, pharyngitis (sore throat), cough and fever. Several herbalists promote its ability to help the body get rid of infection as well as boost the immune system.
There are three commonly used species of Echinacea when in terms of medication. Medicinal preparations either only have one species, a combination of two, or all three of the species into the formulation. The preparations have been used in various forms such as tablets, capsules, ointments, or tinctures. They are also made available in combination with vitamins, minerals, or other immune boosting herbal remedies. The stems, roots, leaves, and flowers have been used to produce liquid extracts, teas, and supplements.
It has been shown that Echinacea has multiple active ingredients that play a role in its therapeutic effect. Though the active ingredients in Echinacea mainly promote an immune system response, other benefits have been shown such as pain relief and inflammation reduction. It also exhibits antiviral, antioxidant, and hormonal properties. Herbalists have taken all these characteristics into consideration and have promoted it for such conditions as: vaginal yeast infection, urinary tract infections, otitis media (otherwise known as ear infection), sinusitis, athlete’s foot, hay fever, and slow healing wounds. But the most popular use of Echinacea is for its ability to combat the common cold.
Even though Echinacea is a popular herbal remedy to treat the common cold, scientific medical research has remained lukewarm to recommend it to the general masses due to lack of evidence of its effectiveness in research studies. While this herb extracts have been shown to promote an immune response in laboratory tests, this does not necessarily translate into fighting the common cold in clinical studies. A 2005 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that Echinacea did not show any significant benefit over a placebo treatment in preventing a cold or reducing the severity of the cold. Another randomized, blinded study performed by the University of Wisconsin studied whether or not it had any significant effect on the length or severity of the common cold. The average duration of symptoms in patients taking it in blinded trials (in other words, the patients had no prior knowledge that they were taking the treatment) was 6.34 days. The patients that knew they were taking the Echinacea treatment had cold symptoms lasting an average 6.76 days. Furthermore, there was no difference in cold severity between the two groups. The study was published in the Dec 2010 in the Annals of Internal Medicine. There have been other studies that compared different parts and different dosages. Some dosages and parts of the herb were more effective than others. The difficulty with the different factors is the lack of uniformity. More recent studies have been done that demonstrated Echinacea is only slightly more effective than a placebo treatment.
Though Echinacea lacks any kind of strong, statistical evidence of its effectiveness in preventing the common cold or shortening the duration of it once someone gets it, most medical doctors and researchers conducting the various studies haven’t completely dismissed Echinacea as a possible treatment for the common cold. Those researchers even urge continued use of Echinacea if that is the usual course of treatment of the common cold or fighting off its symptoms.
But like any other medical treatment, caution must be taken if you there are any predisposing medical conditions or other medication is currently being taken. The most common side effect of Echinacea is an upset stomach. Allergic reactions have been reported when using Echinacea which include rash, worsening asthma (in patients that already have asthma), anaphylaxis (life threatening asthma that is a medical emergency). Patients that are currently on heart medication and anti-fungal medication should not take Echinacea as the combination may cause serious liver damage. Experts also agree that Echinacea should not be taken more than eight weeks in a raw. Though there is no evidence on any harm when the treatment is taken for that long of time, there is also no evidence of its safety. And as herbal medications are not as regulated as most medications are, it is important to take precaution in the product that you take. As always, be sure to consult with a medical professional before you consider taking Echinacea just to be on the safe side.