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What is echinacea?

Echinacea is one of the most popular herbal products in the UK.

Echinacea is a flowering plant that grows throughout Europe and North America. There are 9 species. One of the plant's common names is the purple coneflower. The leaves, stems, flower, and roots may be used to produce supplements, liquid extracts, and teas. People have used echinacea as a traditional cold remedy for centuries.

Echinacea is registered by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as a traditional herbal medicine. THR registration means it’s allowed to be sold in the UK for treatment of symptoms of the common cold and flu. This registration is based on traditional use rather than data generated from clinical trials.

Does echinacea work for the common cold?

Different studies have produced mixed results about whether Echinacea works for colds.

A 2009 review of evidence by the Cochrane Collaboration found no clear evidence for echinacea helping to prevent colds, but some preparations using echinacea may help shorten colds or help to reduce symptoms in adults.

At best, echinacea appears to have a small beneficial effect, according to 2010 US study published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Giving healthy adults echinacea every day for four months may result in around a 26% reduction in the number and duration of colds, according to the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff University in a study published in 2012 in the journal Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

However, there are many variables in studying echinacea for the common cold. Studies have looked at different types and strengths of echinacea as well as different parts of the plant or root. This makes it hard to compare the results. It's possible that some formulations are better than others. Echinacea may also help against some viruses that cause colds but not others.

Are there side effects of echinacea?

Children under 12 years old should not be given herbal treatments containing echinacea because of the risk of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction. Products containing echinacea carry this advice on their packaging labels.

Other reported side-effects of echinacea include rashes, nausea, heartburn, itching, constipation and headache.

If you're interested in using echinacea for the common cold -- or any other alternative treatment - seek medical advice. Remember that herbal remedies may have risks, just as any pharmaceutical drug does. They can cause side effects and could interact with other medications. Make sure that your doctor knows about every alternative treatment that you use.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on May 22, 2017

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