Using Echinacea to Prevent the Cold and Flu this Season

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN

Last week at my local CVS the pharmacist offered me a flu shot. With the hot weather we’ve been having in LA, I hadn’t even realized that the flu season is nearly upon us! But it is that time of year- if it’s not the flu, it’s the common cold. It will soon infiltrate your workplace, your children’s schools, and basically everywhere else you or your family spend considerable time.

But whether you choose to get a flu shot or not, we’re all at risk of seasonal illnesses. And the absolute best measure to take is prevention. If you can avoid getting sick in the first place, you and your family are much better off (because let’s be real, with your schedule, you have no time to get sick).  Echinacea is perhaps the best known herb for keeping well and avoiding the cold and flu. But is it worth the hype? Here we review some of the science surrounding the use of Echinacea.

Echinacea (Echinacea sp.) is a perennial flower in the daisy family that grows naturally in eastern North American cornfields. Traditional uses of Echinacea stem from Native American remedies for colds and upper respiratory tract infections. Native Americans were known to chew the roots of the Echinacea flower to cure symptoms of the cold. Other noted, but far less studied uses include treatment of snakebites, urinary tract infections, gingivitis, flu, tonsillitis, and vaginal candidiasis, among others. However, the most common known use of Echinacea is in the treatment of colds.

Much controversy exists regarding the efficacy of Echinacea in all known uses. A randomized, placebo controlled double blind study found that taking Echinacea or Echinacea concentrate resulted in moderate alleviation of cold symptoms without significant adverse effects compared with the control group (1). Additionally, a meta-analysis of fourteen studies found significant results in an assessment of the impact of Echinacea on the occurrence and duration of the common cold. When pre-treated with Echinacea, odds of developing a cold decreased 58%; alternatively, when colds manifested, the duration of symptoms was reduced by 1.4 days (2). Such studies support the evidence that use of Echinacea may help prevent or treat the common cold.

While much scientific research supports the efficacy of Echinacea on treating the common cold, some studies have not found beneficial effects and even report adverse outcomes. One randomized, double blind placebo controlled trial of children aged two to eleven found no positive effect in treating symptoms or shortening the duration of symptoms in upper respiratory tract infections with Echinacea. Adversely, children taking the Echinacea supplement were more likely to develop a skin rash than those taking the placebo (3). More research must be done to determine whether the side effect of rash development was determinant on the age of participants.

Overall, scientific research suggests that pre-treatment of Echinacea in adults before the onset of a cold may be beneficial in reducing duration of symptoms or preventing the development of the cold with minimal adverse outcomes.

So what’s the takeaway? Echinacea offers a safe method of treating and preventing colds. With few to no side effects, consumption of Echinacea can do little to harm an adult, assuming that the consumer is not taking another drug or supplement that may have an interaction. Echinacea could be deemed relatively safe, with some scientific evidence supporting efficacy. All in all, do all of the other things that will help you avoid the cold and flu this season, like eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, avoiding sugars and processed foods, drinking lots of water, and washing your hands often. If on top of all of that you choose to take Echinacea if you’re around sick family members and friends, then it is likely safe to do so and quite possibly very effective. As always, ask you doctor or dietitian before taking any new supplement.

References:

  1. Brinkeborn, R.M., Shah, D.V., & Degenring, F.H. (1999). Echinacea and other Echinacea fresh plant preparations in the treatment of the common cold: a randomized, placebo controlled, double blind clinical trial. Phytomedicine, 6 (1), 1-6.
  2. Shah, S.A., Sander, S., White, C.M., Rinaldi, M., & Coleman, C.I. (2007). Evaluation of Echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 7 (7), 473-480.
  3. Taylor, J.A., Weber, W., Standish, L., Quinn, H., Goesling, J., McGann, M., & Calabrese, C. (2003). Efficacy and safety of Echinacea in treating upper respiratory tract infections in children: a randomized control trial. JAMA, 290 (21), 2824-2830.