Echinacea (pronounced ehk-in-NAY-shuh) has been touted as an immune system booster with the power to heal everything from cancer to yeast infections. What is echinacea’s value as a cold and flu treatment?
Commonly known as purple coneflower, echinacea is a native North American plant that was used medicinally by American Indians. There are nine varieties of echinacea, but the ones used and studied most are echinacea purpurea and echinacea angustofolia.
Little research on echinacea has been conducted in the United States, but several studies have been done abroad, particularly in Germany, where the herb is widely used medicinally. Those studies do provide some evidence that echinacea may be effective for treating colds and flu. It does not actually kill the viral infection. Instead, echinacea seems to promote the growth of certain white blood cells that help the immune system fight the infection.
If you take echinacea at the first signs of a cold or the flu, it may shorten the duration of your illness. We do not have solid proof on this. But given echinacea’s history of safe use and its lack of significant side effects, it is worth a try if you are interested. For the common cold and mild cases of influenza, there are not other drugs that compare. Over-the-counter cold remedies relieve symptoms; they do not fight the infection.
In Germany, echinacea is not recommended for treating bacterial infections that sometimes result from colds. They also advise taking echinacea for no more than eight weeks at a stretch, but some experts suggest shorter time periods. Avoid echinacea if you are pregnant or allergic to daisies or sunflowers. There is no evidence that it will prevent colds, and it should not be taken on an ongoing basis.
Herbal products are not well regulated in the United States, so it is hard to determine quality. Echinacea is probably most effective for colds and flu when taken in the form of a liquid extract, in a tincture with alcohol and water.
Look for the words “standardized extract” on the label, and try to purchase from a reputable manufacturer. Read the label carefully. If you have any questions, call the company and ask.
Remember, echinacea is natural, but it is still medicine. Do not treat it like candy.