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Echinacea is a genus of flowering plants in the daisy family and a common ingredient in cold remedies.
Promoters of Echinacea believe that the supplement boosts the immune system and can reduce symptoms of infections and other illnesses, including the common cold.
However, researchers have yet to confirm that it provides these benefits.
Below, we look at the potential uses of Echinacea and what the scientific evidence has to say.
Echinacea is the name of a group of flowering plants that are native to North America.
These plants are also called coneflowers. The petals may be pink or purple, depending on the species, and they surround a seed head, or cone, that is spiky and dark brown or red.
There are nine commonly recognized types of Echinacea, three of which are ingredients in herbal remedies:
- E. angustifolia, which has narrow petals
- E. pallida, which has pale petals
- E. purpurea, which has purple petals
It is possible that the various species may have different health benefits.
Echinacea plays a role in traditional medicine, but researchers have yet to confirm that it has any health benefits.
Echinacea plants contain a complex mix of active substances. Some of these compounds may have antimicrobial and antiviral properties, while others may support the immune system in other ways.
Like many other plants, all types of Echinacea contain phenols. Phenols control the activity of a range of enzymes and cell receptors.
They protect the plants from infections and ultraviolet radiation damage, and they may have beneficial antioxidant properties.
Today, people around the world use products that contain Echinacea to support the treatment of a range of illnesses, including:
- coughs and colds
- upper respiratory infections
- canker sores
- yeast infections
- ear infections
- some inflammatory conditions
Also, some people use Echinacea to help wounds heal.
However, most evidence for these uses is anecdotal. Few scientific findings support the use of Echinacea in any treatment.
People can find Echinacea:
- fresh or dried, sometimes in teas
- as a dietary supplement, in pills
- as a preparation to apply to the skin
- squeezed, as juice
- as an extract, in capsules
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) note that taking Echinacea by mouth for a short time is probably safe, but the effects of long-term use are unclear.
Some people have developed a rash after using it, which may result from an allergic reaction. This is more likely to happen in a person with a history of allergic reactions.
The NIH also note that the risk of other medications interacting with Echinacea is probably low.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate herbal remedies. As a result, people cannot be sure exactly what they are taking in a herbal remedy. The product might not contain what the label states.
People have made various claims about Echinacea combating infections, including the one that causes the common cold.
Echinacea for colds
Some studies have shown that taking Echinacea might help fight off a cold.
For example, in one review of over a dozen studies, scientists concluded that taking Echinacea could reduce the risk of catching a cold by around 58% and shorten the duration of a cold by 1.4 days.
Another study, however, found that Echinacea had no significant impact on the common cold and only reduced the duration of symptoms by half a day, at most.
In 2014, a Cochrane review concluded that “Echinacea products have not here been shown to provide benefits for treating colds.”
Researchers have yet to prove that Echinacea can reduce the impact of a cold, and there is very little evidence that it can help with other illnesses.
In 2011, the authors of a review found that some extracts of Echinacea may help treat viral respiratory infections. However, they point out that the lack of standardization among Echinacea products may keep people from finding effective remedies.
Meanwhile, a study from 2020 indicates that a commercial product containing Echinacea extract could help prevent severe respiratory diseases caused by coronaviruses.
However, other scientists warn that this limited investigation did not look into the effect of the product on the virus that causes coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19).
Moreover, the researchers had only tested the product on cell lines and virus particles, not people. The study has also not been peer-reviewed, and it does not, by any means, show that Echinacea can help cure COVID-19.
The scientists who issued the warning also caution that the product could be dangerous to people with autoimmune conditions.
There is no evidence that Echinacea or any other ingredient in herbal medicine can prevent or cure severe respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.
Echinacea may help boost the immune system, but confirming this will require more research. There is no evidence that it can cure a viral infection or any other illness.
Echinacea is available over the counter at pharmacies, health shops, and online — dried, in teas, as liquid extracts, or in capsules.
Check with a doctor before taking Echinacea or any other herbal supplement, as they can interact with ongoing treatments.