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Echinacea For the Common Cold, New Evidence

Echinacea for the common cold

Fall, winter, and the common cold: unfortunately they seem to go together. That means it's also the time to take steps to prevent and effectively treat this unwelcome foul weather visitor, and echinacea may be a natural option you want to consider.

Echinacea can fight the common cold

Echinacea purpurea is both a popular herb and one with a long history of use in the United States. Also known as the purple cornflower, it was used by Native Americans for treating infections and general health problems.

Today it is often taken to help prevent or treat symptoms of the common cold or flu, although the scientific evidence doesn't always support this use for the herbal remedy. Now a new study provides some positive proof.

The research team conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study to determine the ability of echinacea to prevent the common cold in a group of 673 healthy individuals. Participants randomly received either an echinacea supplement (liquid extract) or a placebo and were asked to maintain a record of any side effects and cold-related adverse effects.

Each of the participants took 3 x 0.9 mL per day of the provided treatment or placebo and increased the dose to 5 x 0.9 mL per day if they experienced any cold symptoms. The individuals returned to the study center once a month to receive their next batch of doses and to turn in their diaries.

Researchers evaluated nasal secretions and screened them for viruses. At the end of the four-month study, the authors determined that compared with placebo:

  • Use of echinacea reduced the total number of colds and the total number of days with a cold by 26 percent
  • Use of echinacea reduced the number of recurring infections by 59 percent
  • Use of echinacea significantly reduced the need for taking medication (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen) to treat cold symptoms when illness did occur

The authors also found that the number of adverse events in the placebo and echinacea groups were similar, between 9 and 10 percent. Thus the safety profile of echinacea is very good. In fact, 75 percent of the participants said they would take treatment again.

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Previous research on echinacea
Other studies of echinacea for the common cold have had different results. One from the University of Wisconsin, for example, evaluated the effect of echinacea versus placebo on more than 700 individuals with a new onset cold. Researchers did not observe any significant difference in the severity or length of illness between the placebo and echinacea groups.

A University of California San Francisco study looked at the effects of echinacea on the frequency of upper respiratory tract symptoms. Fifty-eight hospital personnel took either echinacea or placebo daily for 8 weeks during the winter months. Volunteers in the echinacea group reported 9 sick days per person during the trial compared with 14 sick days among those in the placebo group.

Children get a lot of colds, so it's important to discover whether echinacea can help reduce or treat the common cold in kids. A study from the Canadian College of Naturaopathic Medicine attempted to address this issue.

Children between the ages of 2 and 12 years who had upper respiratory tract infections were given echinacea extract for 10 days. Although the authors noted the study had some limitations, including a small sample size, they also reported that symptoms improved for all the children and that no allergic or adverse reactions occurred.

The take-home message
The new study was the largest clinical trial ever done to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of echinacea extract for the common cold, and also the first to screen for viruses. Overall, the findings suggest echinacea can be beneficial in preventing symptoms of the common cold if it is taken for four months.

The quality of echinacea remedies can vary considerably, so be sure to choose a supplement made by a reputable manufacturer. You should also let your healthcare provider know if you or your children are taking echinacea for the common cold, especially if any of you have other health problems or are taking medications because of possible herb and drug interactions.

Barrett B et al. Echinacea for treating the common cold: a randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2010 Dec 21; 153(12): 769-77
Jawad M et al. Safety and efficacy profile of echinacea purpurea to prevent common cold episodes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Evidence -Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012; 2012(article 841315). doi:10.1155/2012/841315
O'Neill J et al. Effects of echinacea on the frequency of upper respiratory tract symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology 2008 Apr; 100(4): 384-88
Saunders PR et al. Echinacea purpurea L. in children: safety, tolerability, compliance, and clinical effectiveness in upper respiratory tract infections. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 2007 Nov; 85(11): 1195-99

Image: Wikimedia Commons