Principal Proposed Uses
- Colds and Flus (Treatment, Not Prevention)
The decorative plant Echinacea purpurea , or purple coneflower, has been one of the most popular herbal medications in both the United States and Europe for over a century.
Native Americans used the related species Echinacea angustifolia for a wide variety of problems, including respiratory infections and snakebite. Herbal physicians among the European colonists quickly added the herb to their repertoire. Echinacea became tremendously popular toward the end of the nineteenth century, when a businessman named H.C.F. Meyer promoted an herbal concoction containing E. angustifolia . The garish, exaggerated, and poorly written nature of his labeling helped define the characteristics of a "snake oil" remedy.
However, serious manufacturers developed an interest in echinacea as well. By 1920, the respected Lloyd Brothers Pharmaceutical Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, counted echinacea as its largest-selling product. In Europe, physicians took up the American interest in E. angustifolia with enthusiasm. Demand soon outstripped the supply coming from America, and, in an attempt to rapidly plant echinacea locally, the German firm Madeus and Company mistakenly purchased a quantity of Echinacea purpurea seeds. This historical accident is the reason why most echinacea today belongs to the purpurea species instead of angustifolia . Another family member, Echinacea pallida , is also used.
Echinacea was the number one cold and flu remedy in the United States until it was displaced by sulfa antibiotics. Ironically, antibiotics are not effective for colds, while echinacea appears to offer some real help. Echinacea remains the primary remedy for minor respiratory infections in Germany, where over 1.3 million prescriptions are issued each year.
What Is Echinacea Used for Today?
In Europe, and increasingly in the US as well, echinacea products are widely used to treat colds and flus.
Finally, echinacea is frequently proposed for general immune support . However, as discussed above there is some reason to think that it is not effective for this purpose.
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Echinacea?
Reducing the Symptoms and Duration of Colds
E. purpurea extract E. purpurea
E. purpurea E. purpurea
E. pallida E. purpurea E. angustifolia E. purpurea E. purpurea E. angustifolia E. angustifolia
The bottom line: at present, the best supporting evidence for echinacea involves the above-ground portion or whole plant extract of E. purpurea , but even here the results are inconsistent.
"Aborting" a Cold
Participants took either echinacea or placebo at a dosage of 20 drops every 2 hours for 1 day, then 20 drops 3 times a day for a total of up to 10 days of treatment. The results were promising. Fewer people in the echinacea group felt that their initial symptoms actually developed into "real" colds (40% of those taking echinacea versus 60% taking the placebo actually became ill). Also, among those who did come down with "real" colds, improvement in the symptoms started sooner in the echinacea group (4 days instead of 8 days). Both of these results were statistically significant.
Echinacea is usually taken at the first sign of a cold and continued for 7 to 14 days. Longer-term use of echinacea is not recommended. The best (though not entirely consistent) evidence supports the use of products made from the above-ground portions of E. purpurea (specifically, flowers, leaves and stems); E. pallida root has also shown promise, but E. purpurea root appears to be ineffective.
The typical dosage of echinacea powdered extract is 300 mg 3 times a day. Alcohol tincture (1:5) is usually taken at a dosage of 3 to 4 ml 3 times daily, echinacea juice at a dosage of 2 to 3 ml 3 times daily, and whole dried root at 1 to 2 g 3 times daily. There is no broad agreement on what ingredients should be standardized in echinacea tinctures and solid extracts.
Other concerns relate to echinacea’s possible immune-stimulating properties. Immunity is a two-edged sword that the body keeps under careful control; excessively strong immune reactions can be dangerous. Based on this concern, echinacea should be used only with caution (if at all) by individuals with autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 08/2013 -
- Update Date: 08/22/2013 -