WebMD Health News
Louise Chang, MD
June 26, 2007 -- Taking the herbal supplement echinacea can cut your chances
of catching a cold by more than half and shorten the duration of a cold by an
average of 1.4 days, a new review of the research shows.
Researchers from the University of Connecticut combined findings from 14
previously reported trials examining echinacea to prevent or treat the common
While many of the most rigorous trials failed to show a significant benefit
for the supplement when reported alone, the combined trial analysis showed a
much stronger benefit, the researchers say.
Use of the herbal supplement was found to reduce the risk of catching a cold
by 58%, while the combination of echinacea and vitamin C reduced cold incidence
by 86% in one study.
But a longtime critic of the study of echinacea as a cold remedy remains
unconvinced by the new analysis.
Wallace Sampson, MD, who edits the Scientific Review of Alternative
Medicine, tells WebMD that the reviewed studies were too different to
provide meaningful results when pooled together.
“If you have studies that measure different things, there is no way to
correct for that,” the Stanford University emeritus clinical professor of
medicine says. “These researchers tried, but you just can’t do it.”
Echinacea, a collection of nine related plant species found in North
America, is the most widely used herbal supplement in North America. More than
800 products contain some form of the herbal in the U.S., according to the
University of Connecticut researchers.
While more than 70 studies examining the use of echinacea for colds were
identified, C. Michael White, PharmD, tells WebMD that only the highest-quality
trials were included in the analysis.
In studies that involved volunteers being directly inoculated with a
cold-causing virus -- considered the most rigorous trial design -- use of
echinacea was found to reduce cold incidence by 35%.
White says the reduced effectiveness in these trials may mean that echinacea
is better for preventing natural virus exposure than exposure to the single
rhinovirus used in the trials.
More than 200 individual viruses are known to be capable of causing the
The analysis is published in the July issue of the journal Lancet
“When you combine the best studies they support the conclusion that
echinacea reduces the risk of catching a cold and reduces the duration of
colds,” White says. “What we don’t know is whether or not long-term exposure to
echinacea is safe.”
None of the studies analyzed by White and colleagues included long-term
safety data on the use of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of
The researchers write that larger trials evaluating safety are needed,
“before echinacea for the prevention or treatment of the common cold can become
This is especially true for people who are already in poor health or are
taking many other drugs, White says.
“If someone has multiple health conditions or is on multiple medications,
they should be careful about taking any herbal product,” he says.
Sampson contends the use of echinacea as a cold remedy has more to do with
aggressive marketing than sound science.
He dates its modern-day use for this purpose to a Swiss herbal supplement
maker who, during a trip to South Dakota in the 1960s, was erroneously told
echinacea was used for cold prevention by Native American tribes who lived in
“There is no more reason to study echinacea to prevent colds than there is
to study echinacea to prevent auto accidents,” Sampson says.
SOURCES: Shah, S.A. The Lancet, July 2007; vol 7: pp 473480. C.
Michael White, PharmD, associate professor, University of Connecticut; and
director, cardiac pharmacology research, Hartford Hospital, Hartford, Conn.
Wallace Sampson, MD, emeritus clinical professor of medicine, Stanford
University Medical School; editor, Scientific Review of Alternative
The Health News section does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.