Echinacea for the Common Cold

You've tried everything. Cough drops, decongestants, and some ibuprofen, too. But that sneezing, hacking, and all-around lousy feeling won't go away. Just as you're ready to wave the white flag, you start to wonder: Could an herbal remedy like echinacea save the day?

Researchers are trying to find out. Their answer so far: We're just not sure.

What Is Echinacea?

It's a flowering plant that grows in the U.S. and Canada, and it's been used as medicine for centuries. There are nine species. Some of its common names are the purple coneflower or black-eyed Susan. The leaves, stems, flower, and roots are used to make supplements, liquid extracts, and teas.

Does It Work for a Cold?

Studies have had mixed results. Extracts of echinacea do seem to have an effect on the immune system, your body's defense against germs. Research shows it increases the number of white blood cells, which fight infections. A review of more than a dozen studies, published in 2014, found the herbal remedy had a very slight benefit in preventing colds.

Two studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine did not find any help for a cold from echinacea in either children or adults, though.

Still, sometimes it's hard to compare the results of different studies, because they look at different types and strengths of echinacea, as well as different parts of the plant or root. It's possible that some versions are better than others. Also, it's possible the herbal remedy may be useful against some, but not all, of the more than 200 viruses that cause colds.

Are There Side Effects?

Although the benefits of echinacea for the common cold are uncertain, the risks seem to be low. The most common side effect is upset stomach.

But some people can have allergic reactions. If this happens, you might get:

You might be at higher risk of having a reaction to echinacea if you're allergic to other plants in the daisy family. This includes ragweed, chrysanthemums, and marigolds.

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Echinacea might also not be safe for people who use certain drugs. Examples are some medications for heart problems -- like amiodarone (Cordarone, Pacerone) -- and some anti-fungal treatments. The combination of echinacea and these medicines could cause liver damage.

Some experts say you shouldn't take echinacea for more than 8 weeks at a time. Although there is no evidence that the herb would cause harm after this point, doctors don't know enough yet about its long-term safety.

Keep in mind that herbal remedies like echinacea aren't regulated in the U.S. the way medications are. The makers of supplements don't have to show their products are safe or effective before they go on the market. Also, there's a chance that what you buy at the drugstore may not actually have what the label says it does.

Other Alternative Treatments

Many other herbs, plants, minerals, vitamins, and supplements are used by some people to help ease cold symptoms. Some examples are:

  • Eucalyptus
  • Garlic
  • Honey
  • Lemon
  • Menthol
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc

But so far, no studies show that these treatments have an effect against a cold.

If you're interested in using echinacea or another alternative treatment, talk to your doctor. Remember, herbal remedies may have risks, just like any drug. They can cause side effects and could affect how other medications work.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on January 20, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:
McIntyre, M. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2005.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Herbs at a Glance: Echinacea."
American Lung Association: "Cold and Flu Guidelines: The Common Cold."
Harvard Health Letter, February 2005.
Medline Plus: "Flu."
Medline Plus: "Common Cold."
Karsch-Völk M. Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, February 2014. 

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