Does Echinacea Fight Colds

| December/January 2005

During the winter cold season, many people turn to echinacea supplements to boost their immunity and fight off illness. In 2004, a U.S. government survey found that echinacea was the nation’s most popular herbal medicine, used by 40 percent of those who bought herbal products.

But echinacea’s effectiveness was called into question last July, when the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a large clinical trial that found the herb did not help treat or prevent colds. The study, funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), made headlines across the country, most of them declaring the end of echinacea as a cold remedy.

Does that mean you should throw away the echinacea in your medicine cabinet Not so fast, says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC), a nonprofit organization that promotes research and education on medicinal plants.

“The study was well conducted; it was very well controlled, but this is not the definitive study,” Blumenthal says. “It needs to be seen in the context of the many other trials of echinacea.” The ABC, which publishes in-depth reference information on medicinal herbs, has posted research on echinacea at Among the 21 studies listed, 18 found positive results, with three finding no significant effects.

As the researchers themselves noted in the NCCAM study, it’s difficult to prove or disprove that echinacea fights colds because so many forms of the herb are used. Commonly called purple coneflower, echinacea is a genus with three different species that are used medicinally—Echinacea purpurea, E. pallida, and E. angustifolia. Medicinal preparations may contain either the root or the aboveground portion of the plant from any of these species, and they may be prepared as dried herbs available in capsules, liquid extract sold as a tincture, or even dried extracts. Even the geographic location of the plant and the time of year it was harvested can affect its chemical composition, according to the researchers who conducted the NCCAM study.

For that trial, the researchers used a tincture of E. angustifolia root three times a day in dosages that were equivalent to 300 milligrams. The trial was conducted on 437 college students who were given cold viruses and then sequestered in hotel rooms. Those given extracts of E. angustifolia did not display any fewer infections or shorter duration of the cold symptoms than those who did not receive the herb; and the extracts were not any more effective when given before exposure to the virus than they were in reducing its effects.

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