Is Echinacea Effective for Treating Colds and the Flu?

It seems wherever I go these days I have people coughing and sneezing all around me. The receptionist at my local doctor’s office was even sick! (Bad place to come to work sick, right?) And just this morning my local news station stated that there is an influenza outbreak in the county and how some people have already died from it. They also noted how this season’s flu vaccine is only 25% effective according to experts. So, it seems the worst of cold and flu season has arrived, folks.

Given this gloomy information, the thought undoubtedly crossed my mind about what I can do to boost my immune system and to treat a cold or flu if I get sick. Echinacea, of course, popped into my head! (It’s one of my “25 Proven Ways to Boost Your Immunity & Stay Healthy Naturally & Holistically” after all!)

But is it really that effective? Read on to discover more about what the research says, if product quality matters, when you should avoid it, and what my personal take on it is.

Echinacea Purpurea flowers. By Calle Eklund/V-wolf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Echinacea Purpurea flowers. By Calle Eklund/V-wolf via Wikimedia Commons.

What does the research show?

Highly regarded by herbalists as an immunostimulant, a lot of the research has been done on echinacea for treating influenza and colds, oftentimes with mixed results. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (NCCAM), some studies have shown echinacea is effective in treating upper respiratory infections and enhancing immunity, whereas others have not.

MedLine Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, seems to support the idea that echinacea is effective in alleviating symptoms, but not necessarily enhancing immunity. In MedLine Plus’ article on echinacea, it states that echinacea may “possibly be effective” for reducing cold symptoms, but notes that studies are mixed in terms of whether it can prevent a cold from happening in the first place. In terms of the flu, it notes how there is “insufficient evidence” to support the idea that echinacea may “prevent or treat the flu,” but that it may slightly reduce some flu symptoms. With regard to ear infections, it states that it may “possibly be ineffective.” (One study showed it increased the chances of children to get an ear infection by 1.59 times).

Confused yet? I know I was after sorting through all the studies. What is clear is that there is not a definitive clear-cut answer. But, what can be gathered from the research, is that the existing research shows that echinacea can help with cold and flu symptoms to a certain extent. Whether or not it prevents one from getting sick in the first place seems debatable. But before you go writing off echinacea for good, there are other factors to consider as to why these results may be so mixed (e.g., product quality and even the type of echinacea used). So, let’s dive into that into a little more detail.

Does product quality matter?

Yes! Echinacea’s effectiveness may very well have to do with the product itself. Enter practically any natural products store and you’ll find a dizzying array of echinacea products and delivery forms, such a gummies, tablets, teas and tinctures. The problem is not all of them are created equal.

Products can vary widely in their composition (e.g., the type of species and plant parts used) and the way the echinacea was grown, extracted, and processed. For example, some echinacea products are made from whole fresh plants and others may just use dried roots.

The type of echinacea used may also a factor.  Out of the nine species of echinacea, about two of them are commonly used when treating cold and flu issues, for instance.

For more information on what kinds of echinacea to use and what to look for in a supplement, stayed tuned for my upcoming post, “Echinacea: What to Look for in a Supplement

What existing conditions or drug interactions play a role?

Echinacea may be an effective remedy for some and usually doesn’t cause problems, but some people may be more prone to having an allergic reaction when using it. Symptoms may include “rashes, increased asthma, and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction)” according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Because allergic reactions may be more severe when experienced by children under the age of 12, some organizations recommend not giving it to children. Also, if you have any of these conditions, you might want to avoid it due to the possibility of an allergic reaction:

  • Allergy to plants related to the daisy family (e.g., ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds)
  • Asthma
  • Atopy (a tendency towards allergic reactions)

In addition, MedLine Plus notes how people with autoimmune disorders (e.g., lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS) are advised not to take echinacea because of its immune stimulating effects. It could make the condition worse. Though, there definitely seems to be a difference of opinion on this. Some herbalists, such as Kerry Bone and Simon Mills, point out how echinacea may actually be helpful in these situations as it modulates the immune system.

Also, it is generally advised that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding avoid using echinacea as there isn’t enough research on it.

Finally, echinacea interacts with caffeine (it might slow down the break down of it in your body resulting in jitteriness) and certain medications. For a complete list of side effects and drugs that may interact with it, check out the MedLine Plus information page on echinacea.

What does this all mean?

Well, using echinacea therapeutically at the first signs of a cold or flu may be a good idea. In my personal experience, it has even stopped a cold or flu from developing dead in its tracks, so I like using it (often in combination with other herbs, such as garlic, elderberry, etc.).

Using it preventatively all season long for immune support may be helpful for some people if you find that you get sick quite often or if there’s a flu outbreak occurring. However, there’s still not enough research to back the safety of using it long-term, so it’s a grey area.  Also, using echinacea alone for several weeks may prove to be unbalancing for particular constitutions (e.g., Vata) according to Ayurveda, an ancient system of holistic healing that originated out of India.

Of course, the decision to use echinacea and how to use it is a very personal one and I always recommend seeking advice from your doctor or health care provider, especially if other factors are at play (e.g., diseases, conditions, medication usage, etc.).

What do you think?

Have you found echinacea to be effective for you? If so, how? If not, why? And if you’ve never used it, might you give it a try?

Additional References

Echinacea.” NCCIH. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Apr. 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.

Hobbs, Christopher. “Echinacea: A Literature Review; Botany, HIstory, Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Clinical Uses.” HerbalGram 30 (1994): 33. American Botanical Council. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.

Bone, Kerry and Simon Mills. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. Modern Herbal Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2000. Print.

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Copyright © Karen Peltier and Well Gal, 2012-2016. All rights reserved.


One thought on “Is Echinacea Effective for Treating Colds and the Flu?

  1. Julieanne van Zyl

    Hi Karen, I’ve never taken this kind of supplement. However, I noticed when I first taking supplements 14 yrs ago, that I stopped having so many colds, and I haven’t had the flu in all that time. I do get a cold occasionally, but it doesn’t develop into much, and I only feel “down” for the first day.

    Thanks for all the information about this supplement.

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