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For Allergy and Asthma, Herbs Can Help and Harm

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Echinacea is a flowering plant related to the daisy and ragweed, Mullins says. It might provoke asthma or an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to components common to all of those plants. Echinacea's popularity Down Under has exploded in recent years, due to reports that "it may stimulate white blood cells to gobble up germs more effectively." Mullins warns that such claims are based on statements taken out of context from scientific papers.

Nevertheless, Australians take an estimated 200 million doses of it annually. Reactions to echinacea account for more than 10% of the adverse reports involving alternative medicine in Australia. But this could be an underestimate, says Mullins, because "minor reactions such as transient rashes or worsening of underlying asthma are likely to go unnoticed and unreported."

"We need to challenge the concept that natural means safe," he says. "Herbal medicines have not been examined carefully for risks. If you have allergies, including asthma, eczema, and hay fever, I recommend that you don't take echinacea at all."

Vital Information:

  • In a study on rats, a formulation of herbal Chinese medicines called MTSD was just as effective as a more conventional steroid medication in the treatment of asthma.
  • Another Chinese medicine, ding-chan tang, showed some effect against asthma, but not as much as the other two treatments.
  • Researchers caution consumers about taking alternative medicines, including echinacea, because the substances may cause serious, even fatal, reactions.
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