As the weather gets nicer and people head outside for springtime events, the last thing you want is to catch a spring cold. And, if you do start to feel congested or sneezy, you might turn to just about anything to help your body recover—from over-the-counter cold medication to herbal remedies that you’ve heard of in passing.
One natural solution you may have been told about is echinacea—a flowering herb that’s supposed to prevent and put a halt to colds. But does it fight back against colds and flus? Does it actually boost the immune system? Before you stock up on echinacea supplements and choose those over your tried-and-true cold remedies, here’s what you should know about this “cure’s” origin and efficacy.
What is echinacea?
Echinacea is not just one plant—the term actually describes around 10 species of a flowering herb also known as the purple coneflower. The herb is native to North America and has been used in Native American remedies for hundreds of years. Because echinacea is so varied, some echinacea supplements use multiple types of the herb, while others use only one. They might also use the herb’s roots and/or its leaves and flowers.
Echinacea is believed to have strong immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory effects, which is why it’s sometimes believed to be effective at reducing cold symptoms.
Echinacea for colds: Fact or fiction?
Echinacea has long been touted as a natural remedy for colds, but research isn’t conclusive on whether it actually works or not. Some people claim that supplements have helped them, but these are anecdotal.
Official studies on the subject have produced mixed results, with some saying that echinacea offers no benefits when it comes to preventing or treating colds, and others indicating that echinacea may be useful in reducing the length of illness. However, most studies state that echinacea is not effective in stopping you from catching a cold to begin with.
Experts who believe that echinacea may help relieve cold-like illnesses tend to think that echinacea helps stimulate the body’s natural immune response, improving killer cell response to defeat viruses. This may slightly reduce the severity of your cold symptoms and, more likely, reduce the length of time you experience those symptoms.
Part of the reason results have been so varied is because of the variety of echinacea species and parts of the plant used to create supplements. Additional research is needed to draw a definitive conclusion about echinacea’s benefits.
The risks of taking echinacea are slim. Some people may experience nausea or digestive upset after taking it, and it could trigger side effects in people with daisy or ragweed allergies. However, for the large majority, taking echinacea on a short-term basis is unlikely to do you much harm.
Therefore, it may be worth a shot if your cold doesn’t seem to be going away…just don’t expect an instant cure!
How to take echinacea
Experts say that the best time to take echinacea is immediately once you notice the initial signs of a cold. This way, the herb’s immune-boosting properties get to work right away and have the greatest potential to minimize your symptoms.
Echinacea can often be found as a tea, syrup or oil tincture. Some companies may also produce echinacea pills or capsules. Follow the directions for whatever form of supplement you purchase for the best results.
If you’re deciding between a few different supplements, look into the companies that sell them and rule out ones that don’t have a third-party quality certification. Also look for supplements that only contain echinacea and no other ingredients. It is generally believed multi-ingredient supplements are less effective.
Before you take echinacea, check with your pharmacist to ensure that the herb won’t interact with any prescription medications you’re taking. Some supplement and medication combos can cause harmful side effects like liver damage.
Cold prevention requires a well-rounded effort
Echinacea is unlikely to make a significant impact on your cold symptoms, and it’s even less likely that taking it long term will prevent a spring cold. Fortunately, there are other, easier (and cheaper) ways to improve your immunity to prevent and alleviate cold symptoms.
Sleeping enough each night, eating healthy, nutritious meals filled with vitamins and minerals, exercising and minimizing bad habits can help keep your immune system in great shape. When your immune system is healthy and strong, spring colds stand less of a chance at making your season miserable!