Echinacea: Research Update
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | December 30, 2003

Echinacea is a popular herb used by millions of people to reduce the severity and duration of colds, flu, and other infections. As a result, one of the most frequently asked questions we get at Better Life Unlimited is "Can my children use echinacea if I think they're getting a cold?" Typically, we recommend that you check with your pediatrician and if he or she says it's okay, echinacea should be fine in a reduced dose. The primary concern is an unforeseen allergic reaction to the herb. Of course, that's possible with any herb or even a pharmaceutical. Many people have safely used echinacea for their children with excellent results. However, a recently published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has raised some questions about the efficacy of echinacea in children(1).

Briefly, the researchers examined the effects of a single form of echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) versus placebo in a group of children ages 2-11. They reported no difference in the severity or duration of colds when echinacea was started at the first symptom of a cold. They also reported an increase in rashes in those children who used the echinacea. The researchers concluded that based on the results of the study, Echinacea purpurea should not be recommended for children with upper-respiratory infections.

Was the study definitive as to the use of echinacea for children? No. There were three areas of concern in the study:

  • The researchers used only a single form of echinacea. They acknowledge that the results might have been different if they had used different forms of echinacea and/or different parts of the echinacea plant.
  • They did not begin the echinacea at a single symptom of a cold. Rather, the children had to experience at least two symptoms, such as runny nose and watery eyes, before the parents administered the echinacea. That may have been too late--our experience has shown that the best time to use echinacea is when you get the very first feeling that a cold is coming on.
  • Assessing the severity of colds is not a precise science in adults assessing themselves--and it's that much more difficult to assess a child who may not be able to communicate the symptoms accurately. This study represents a good beginning but is hardly definitive.

So where does that leave you as cold and flu season gets into full swing? If you have always used a broad spectrum echinacea product with good results, there's no reason to stop now. If you haven't used it yet, the best thing to do is to discuss it with your physician. Remember, antibiotics do not work on viruses, and colds are the results of viruses. If echinacea is given at the first symptom, it probably won't hurt and very well may help.

Reference:

  1. Taylor, JA, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Echinacea in Treating Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2003;290:2824-2830.
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