Can Echinacea treat a cold: The debate goes on

The popular herbal remedy Echinacea has been around now for many years and has been the source of much controversy over whether it works or not. Echinacea is extracted from the Eastern Purple Coneflower, which is found in North America, and has long been used as a herbal remedy for the common cold. Echinacea works by fighting viruses, which cause up to 95 per cent of all colds and flu, and studies suggest it can also boost weak immune systems if swallowed.

Common colds are caused by a range of viruses that result in the familiar symptoms of a runny nose, cough, and sore throat and sometimes complaints of headache and fever. The authors report that the common cold is the most prevalent disease in Western civilisation, with substantial related healthcare costs, so a medication to reduce this disease burden would be welcomed.

Now in new research carried out by Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre (UCCC), 750 patients found that taking three daily doses of the common remedy for four months, reduced the number of colds and duration of the illness, by an average of 26 per cent. They said, “The treatment also cuts the number of recurrent colds suffered by people with weak immune systems, or a history of catching several bouts each year by 60 per cent.”

Previous studies had suggested that Echinacea could soothe symptoms and cut colds short, but there was only limited evidence it could prevent the illness from ever taking hold. The new study by the UCCC suggests that taking Echinaforce, a common form of the herb extract, could not only reduce the risk of colds but also the amounts of paracetamol patients took while ill.

The study was published in the open access, peer reviewed medical journal, Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This was a was a randomised, double blind, placebo controlled, clinical trial designed to assess the safety and benefits of Echinacea purpurea (Echinacea) extract, in the prevention of common colds.

This study appears to show that giving healthy adults Echinacea every day for four months, may result in an average 26% reduction in the combined number and duration of cold episodes, compared to placebo over the same period. Actually, these findings are not unexpected. A study from the University of Connecticut published in 2007 found that people who took a preparation of Echinacea, reduced the number of colds from which they suffered by 60 per cent; and if they did catch cold, the illness lasted 1.4 days fewer than if they did not take the preparation.

It is only honest to point out, however, that other trials for example, one led by a researcher from the University of Virginia in 2005, have been negative. As is almost always the case, further research is needed. This randomised control trial was well designed and had a good sample size (755 participants); however, there are a number of irregularities in the reporting of the study findings that cast a shadow of doubt over the results, such as:

  • No declaration of funding and only partial disclosure of conflict of interests
  • No results table
  • Limited reporting of unpleasant side effects
  • No estimates of error around the results reported
  • Selective reporting of results

In conclusion, based on this study alone, it is not clear whether taking Echinacea prevents cold episodes, though it does suggest it may reduce their duration. Further research is needed to confirm or refute these findings and also to see if they also apply to people with long term health conditions such as asthma.

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