Echinacea, also known as coneflower, is a purple flower commonly grown in North America in woods and fields. Native Americans in the United States’ Midwest have been using echinacea as a medicinal herb for over 400 years. The Great Plains Indians used echinacea for all sorts of problems, from toothaches to snakebites. Explorers Lewis and Clark even learned about the plant’s health benefits on their voyages and shipped echinacea seeds back to President Jefferson in the 1800s.
The echinacea plant is still in use today as a dietary supplement. There are nine species of echinacea, but only two of them, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia, are commonly used in supplements. While echinacea supplements are most commonly found in pill form, the plant can also be found in teas, juices, and creams.
Echinacea contains several chemicals that may provide health benefits. Researchers believe that two chemicals in particular, polysaccharides and glycoproteins, boost your body’s immune system. Your immune system helps you fight off germs that cause infection.
While there is no strong evidence that echinacea has health benefits in any area, echinacea is most commonly used to treat colds. Some early research shows that echinacea supplements may have broader health benefits as well.
Prevents the Common Cold
Echinacea may strengthen your body’s immune system, helping you fight colds and flus caused by viruses or bacteria. Some research shows that the echinacea plant contains chemicals that help your body create white blood cells. When your upper respiratory tract (nose, mouth, and throat) becomes infected, these white blood cells work within your immune system to fight infection.
However, a 2014 study reviewing two-dozen other studies found only weak evidence that echinacea supplements actually treat colds. While it is possible that echinacea may help treat colds, it is not proven that it will make your cold go away faster.
Echinacea may play a role in fighting off a wide variety of infections. Some data shows that echinacea can treat urinary tract infections, ear infections, as well as wounds or cuts that are slow to heal. While sometimes echinacea may help minor infections disappear, you should see your doctor if the problem continues.
For people with eczema, an inflammation of the skin, cream containing echinacea extract may help. Early research shows that daily use of echinacea cream helped soothe irritation caused by eczema and also helped build up the protective outer layer of skin. However, it’s too soon to know if echinacea helps eczema in most people.
It’s also important to be mindful of possible allergic reactions, as people with eczema commonly have allergies and asthma.
Echinacea may offer health benefits and usually does not cause side effects. However, in some cases, using echinacea supplements may carry some risk.
Interactions with Other Medications
People taking medications that suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants) should not take echinacea, as echinacea supplements may interfere with the medication. This includes people with tuberculosis, leukemia, diabetes, HIV or AIDS, and any other autoimmune disease. This also includes people who have received organ transplants.
Although it is rare, it is possible that echinacea will cause allergic reactions. Reactions may be mild, but in severe cases echinacea can cause anaphylaxis (loss of breathing). People who have asthma or other allergies are at higher risk. This is especially true for people who are allergic to plants in the daisy family. If you have allergies or asthma, talk to your doctor before taking echinacea.
Amounts and Dosage
There is no standard recommended dose for echinacea. This is mainly because echinacea supplements come in many forms, such as pills, juices, or creams. Follow all directions on the product label, or ask your doctor before using. Do not take echinacea for more than two weeks unless your doctor tells you to. If your supplements cause an upset stomach, take it with food and water.
Some echinacea supplements have higher doses than others. Always check supplement formulations with your doctor to make sure the dosages in them are appropriate for you.
It is also important to buy echinacea products made by reputable companies. Talk to your doctor to select a trustworthy source of echinacea.