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Echinacea is a very popular herb, and people commonly take it to help combat flu and colds. It is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the daisy family – Asteraceae. It is also known as the American coneflower.
Echinacea is available over the counter (OTC) at pharmacies, health shops, and online as teas, liquid extracts, a dried herb, and as capsules or pills.
Promoters of echinacea say that the herb encourages the immune system and reduces many of the symptoms of colds, flu and some other illnesses, infections, and conditions.
Echinacea is a perennial plant, meaning it lasts for many years. It is approximately 1-2 feet (30-60 centimeters) tall when mature. It is slightly spiky and has large purple to pink flowers, depending on the species.
The center of the flower has a seed head (cone), which is also spiky and dark brown to red in color.
Three species of Echinacea are used as herbal remedies:
- Echinacea angustifolia – narrow-leaved coneflower
- Echinacea pallida – pale purple coneflower
- Echinacea purpurea – purple coneflower, eastern purple coneflower
Echinacea has a complex mix of active substances, some of which are said to be antimicrobial, while others are believed to have an effect on the human immune system.
All species of this herbal remedy have compounds called phenols. Many plants contain phenols, active substances that control the activity of a range of enzymes and cell receptors, and protect the plant from infections and ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage. Phenols have antioxidant properties, which may be good for human health.
Echinacea also contains alkylamides or alkamides, (not in Echinacea pallida), which have an effect on the immune system, as well as polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and caffeic acid derivatives.
Today, Echinacea is used widely all over the world for a range of illnesses, infections, and conditions. Below is a list of some of these uses.
- acid indigestion
- attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- genital herpes
- gum disease
- rattlesnake bite
- septicemia – bloodstream infection
- streptococcus infection
- urinary tract infection
- vaginal yeast infection
Apart from some studies quoted earlier on in this article, most of the benefits are anecdotal, and, in most cases, are not proven scientifically.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warn consumers to be careful regarding some echinacea products that are on the market.
Echinacea products are commonly mislabeled; some have been tested and found to have no echinacea in them at all. The term “standardized” may sound impressive, but has no real meaning, the NIH emphasize.
Laboratory tests have shown that some echinacea products are tainted with arsenic, lead or selenium.
Herbal remedies are not regulated in most countries, including the USA and UK, in the same way that medications are. This can mean that a herbal remedy, such as Echinacea, that is purchased at a drugstore might not contain what the label claims.
Marketers of natural products tend to promote how harmless they are in comparison to man-made ones. It is important to remember that “natural” means it exists in, or is derived from, nature. “Natural” does not mean that it is harmless.
The following are all “natural” plants that can cause harm:
- Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), is one of the most toxic plants in the Western hemisphere. Also known as belladonna, devil’s cherry and dwale.
- Apple seeds. They contain small quantities of amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside. If you swallowed all the pips from one apple, there would not be enough poison to harm you. However, if you kept eating mouthfuls, you would eventually reach a fatal dose.
- Rhubarb. The stalks are edible, but the leaves contain oxalic acid, which can cause severe kidney disorders, convulsions, and even coma.
- Daffodil (Narcissus). The bulbs are toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If enough is consumed, it can be fatal. The stems are also toxic and can cause blurred vision, vomiting, and headaches.
- Cicuta. also known as water hemlock, cowbane, or poison parsnip, is a highly poisonous plant that can kill humans if consumed. It has high levels of cicutoxin, which is a potent toxin.
Several health claims and accusations about the effectiveness of echinacea have been made. Lay readers, as well as many healthcare professionals, do not know how many studies have been scientifically carried out, that claim echinacea is worth considering.
Some studies were done in the mid-1990s, including randomized trials. However, nearly all were sponsored by echinacea manufacturers and marketers and were not considered by the scientific community as being of high quality. Most reported the benefits of the herbal remedy.
Echinacea for colds
Does echinacea have any effect on catching colds or reducing symptoms of a cold?
Studies have produced conflicting results:
Yes – scientists from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy reviewed over a dozen studies on the effects of echinacea on people’s risk of catching a cold.
They concluded that echinacea could reduce a person’s chances of catching a cold by approximately 58 percent. They found that the herbal remedy also reduces the length of time a cold lasts by 1.4 days.
No – researchers from the Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health reported in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine (December 2010 issue), that echinacea has no significant impact on the common cold and only reduces the duration of symptoms by half a day at the most. No – scientists reported in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) (October 2005 issue) that ginseng reduces the frequency of colds, but Echinacea does not.
Most recently, a Cochrane review from 2014 concluded that “Echinacea products have not here been shown to provide benefits for treating colds.”
Native Americans used echinacea for hundreds of years before the arrival of European explorers, settlers, and colonizers. The North American Plains Indians used Echinacea angustifolia extensively for general medical purposes.
It is endemic to eastern and central North America and thrives in moist to dry prairies and open woodlands.
By the early 1800s echinacea became a popular herbal remedy for those who had settled in the United States, and soon became commonly used in Europe as well. It became much more popular after research on it was carried out in Germany in the 1920s.
In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, echinacea was used for treating anthrax infections, snakebites, and also as a pain reliever.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, echinacea became hugely popular in Europe and North America as a herbal medication.
Echinacea was first used as a treatment for the common cold when a Swiss supplement maker mistakenly understood that it could prevent colds, and that Native American tribes in South Dakota used it for that purpose.
Native American Indians did not commonly use echinacea for the treatment or prevention of colds. Some, like the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, used it for sore throats and coughs, while the Pawnee said it was useful for headaches. The Lakȟóta said it was an excellent painkiller.
Native Americans say that humans learned to use echinacea by watching elk seeking out the herb and eating it whenever they were wounded or sick. They named it the “elk root.”
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