Echinacea is a very popular herb used by many people to help treat illness and reduce the likelihood of getting sick at the first signs of a cold. It has also created a little bit of a stir lately as to whether or not it is effective. So what more has to be said about this pretty flower?
What is Echinacea?
Echinacea is a group of plants related to the daisy, natively found in America. It is the general name for nine types of plants, and is also known as coneflower. The variates include:
- Echinacea angustifolia: Narrow-leaf Coneflower
- Echinacea atrorubens: Topeka Purple Coneflower
- Echinacea laevigata: Smooth Coneflower, Smooth Purple Coneflower
- Echinacea pallida: Pale Purple Coneflower
- Echinacea paradoxa: Yellow Coneflower, Bush’s Purple Coneflower
- Echinacea purpurea: Purple Coneflower, Eastern Purple Coneflower
- Echinacea sanguine: Sanguine purple Coneflower
- Echinacea simulate: Wavyleaf Purple Coneflower
- Echinacea tennesseensis: Tennessee Coneflower
Only a few different varieties are used in herbal preparations, and their active chemical compositions often vary because of this.
A brief history of Echinacea
Echinacea is said to be used by the Native American Indians, and it was used by different tribes for a variety of different reasons. Some tribes prized it for its headache curing abilities, and others used it to treat sore throat or for its anaesthetic properties. During the Colonial settlement of America, many new Americans started to incorporate the local herbal medicine into their care.
The role of Echinacea became confused when a Swiss Drug company mistranslated the properties, and started to advertise it as the miracle drug that can cure the common cold.
How is Echinacea prepared?
It is used by many people in a variety of preparations:
- Liquid drops
- Mixed cold and flu preparations
The preparations can be made out of different types of Echinacea (E. Angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea) and the leaves, root or petals can be used. It is available over-the-counter at pharmacies, supermarkets and health food shops, and should be labelled with the AUST-L symbol. The AUST-L symbol is a label that has been given by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Is taking Echinacea safe?
The evidence for the effectiveness of Echinacea varies. Many of the early studies were done by drug companies who sold Echinacea. As such, the scientific community disputes their validity, noting that these studies are of poor design. Many of the studies focused on the effects of the drug and anecdotal reporting. Recently, new studies have emerged that show conflicting results. Many of them conclude that Echinacea is not effective at curing the common cold, and the most that it could reduce symptoms by was half a day.
It is hard to say whether or not the placebo effect is taking affect here. Some recent studies do prove that it works, and others disprove it. Echinacea does have some interesting properties. It has a few key chemicals that are linked with stimulating immune system response. This immune system response is why it is recommended to be taken with caution by children under the age of 12, as their immune systems are still developing.
Some people may experience an allergy to Echinacea. There can be a cross allergy between it, ragweed, marigold and daisies. Persons with auto-immune disorders are advised to not take it, as it can make symptoms worse.
Echinacea also has interactions with other drugs. If you take clopidogrel, olanzapine, and/or warfarin you should avoid using this product. It can increase the effect of these drugs, and increase the risk of an adverse drug reaction.
Should you continue taking it? The risks of suddenly stopping taking Echinacea seem to be relatively low. Never start a regular medication without consulting your GP first. If you want to stop taking a medication that you have been advised to take, always discuss this with your health professional first.
Are there other medicines out there that are better? Some sources state that there may be better herbal medicines to perform the same tasks. The variability of Echinacea makes it hard to measure, and there is no recommended standard dose.
What to do if you have a cold
If you have a cold, and Echinacea has worked for you before and you decide to take it again, do not take it for more than 10 days. Long term effects of taking Echinacea have been linked with immuno-suppression. If your symptoms get worse or do not get better, consult a GP- save the emergency department for emergencies!
Complementary and alternative medicine may have something to offer you. Always include any medications you regularly take with your GP, and let them know who you see. Having everyone in the conversation about your health is beneficial.
In general, it is a good idea to rest, keep warm, drink fluids and eat healthy food. Paracetamol can be used to provide some comfort. Wash your hands after sneezing, coughing or blowing your nose to prevent the spread of infection. Most colds clear up after a few days, and if symptoms worsen or persist, you may need to speak to your GP.