What Is Echinacea—and Can It Really Help a Cold?
Here's what you need to know before taking the popular supplement to fight the sniffles.
So you have the sniffles. Usually, that’s not too big of a deal, but you also have an important meeting this week, or you were just packing up a suitcase to go on vacation, or you’re getting married, or you’re doing anything else that makes having a cold really inconvenient. Point is: You want the symptoms to go away—and fast.
Maybe you’ve heard that echinacea, a natural supplement sometimes made into a tea, syrup, or oil, could help. But, as with all supplements, the science is a little iffy. So before you run out to down a glass of echinacea tea, take a look at what the research says.
First, what is echinacea?
Echinacea, also called purple coneflower, is a type of plant with nine known species native to North America. Native Americans have long used the flowers to treat things like toothaches, coughs, colds, sore throats, and snake bites, according to the USDA.
The flower is “thought to have significant immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Jason Abramowitz, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at ENT and Allergy Associates in New York City. Because of the supposed anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties, echinacea continues to be used as an herbal supplement today.
Will echinacea really help your cold?
The few studies that have been done on echinacea suggest that the plant may shorten a common cold at least a little bit. “The best scientific evidence involves the plant’s ability to reduce the length of a cold when started at the onset of symptoms,” says Kristen Kajewski, DO, a family medicine provider at Mayo Clinic Health System in Minnesota. “There have been quite a few studies with positive outcomes in this regard.” The key is “started at the onset of symptoms,” which means you’ll need to start taking echinacea at the first sign of sniffles if you want to see any benefit.
Even still, there’s a miniscule chance that taking this supplement is going to get you better in time for that important meeting that's only a day or two away. Echinacea may shorten the lifespan of your cold, but it’s not a miracle cure—it won’t take you from feeling lousy to feeling great overnight. “Usually, someone would need to take echinacea three to four times a day for seven to 14 days, and this could shorten the course of the illness by one to two days and decrease the severity of symptoms,” Dr. Kajewski says.
Shortening a cold by a day or two sounds pretty good, so you may be ready to run to the drugstore and buy some echinacea. But those results haven’t been consistent across studies, so there’s no guarantee that taking echinacea will affect you that way. Some studies have shown only a half-day reduction in cold duration and a small, basically insignificant reduction in symptom severity, according to the Mayo Clinic. Overall, there isn’t a big enough body of research on echinacea to prove that it does or does not help fight colds.
Is echinacea safe?
The supplement industry is not well regulated, so you can’t be 100% sure that any echinacea pill, oil, or tea you’re picking up is the pure, unadulterated plant. “As with many supplements, ensuring a quality product is difficult,” Dr. Kajewski says. “Adulteration, substitution, and products of poor quality have been a long-standing problem with echinacea.”
Then there’s the trouble that no two echinacea supplements are created equal. Echinacea pills, oils, teas, and syrups may all contain different species of the plant, different parts (the petals, the stems, the leaves, etc.), be manufactured in different ways, or have other ingredients added, according to the National Institutes of Health. And all of this may affect both how effective the supplement you choose is, as well as how much scientists really know about echinacea supplements in general (since every study may be testing a different form).
Still, if you want to give it a try, most of the supplements seem to be pretty safe. Some people report nausea or stomach pain with echinacea, and in one clinical trial some children who took echinacea syrup developed a rash. But most people have no side effects with these supplements, Dr. Kajewski says, and taking echinacea is generally considered safe even when combined with other supplements or medications meant to treat your cold.
So should you take echinacea?
Bottom line: Go ahead and take echinacea if you want to. There are very few risks involved, and it might even have a slight benefit. It’s unlikely that taking an echinacea supplement or drinking some echinacea tea (we like Traditional Medicinals's Lemon Echinacea Throat Coat) will make you feel 100% before that important date you have coming up in your calendar, but it just might help get you over your cold faster. As always, though, it’s a good idea to chat with your doctor about any supplements you want to try.
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