Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Echinacea does not ward off colds according to research

From the Food & Health Skeptic:

On to the next fad!

The herbal remedy echinacea, which is taken to stave off colds, does not work, say leading doctors. They suggest that the plant extract has little or no effect on the length or severity of symptoms including coughs and sneezes.

Increasing numbers of Britons take echinacea supplements every year at the first sign of a cold in the hope that they will help boost their immune system. But a major study suggested that its effects are ‘minimal’, and for many people it will not work at all.

The research by the American College of Physicians compared the effects of the extract on 719 people experiencing the first sign of a cold. Half were given echinacea tablets to take once a day for five days and the other half took placebos and recorded their symptoms for a week. 

Symptoms of the common cold – congestion, sore throat and fever – usually resolve within seven to ten days. The length of illness among the volunteers who took the echinacea was shorter by between seven and ten hours – a ‘statistically insignificant’ result, the experts said. The herb had no effect on severity of the symptoms. 

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded that, for most people, taking the supplement was not ‘worthwhile’. 

The team, led by Professor Bruce Barrett at the University of Wisconsin concluded: ‘Any underlying benefit of echinacea is not large and was not demonstrated by our results. Individual choices about whether to use echinacea to treat the common cold should be guided by personal health values and preferences.’

The herb, derived from a flowering plant native to North America, has become increasing popular in the past decade. It was first used by American Indians to treat snake bites.

Okay, while this is pretty much the result I'd have expected, (most so-called herbal remedies have either no real effect or only a very small one), and I think accords with some other studies, I do have a few caveats.

It's a small sample of people and, most crucially, it involves self reporting. Always be wary of studies that involve people reporting how they feel, though depends on whether they were given a definite list of symptoms to report on (which seems to be the case), not just the vague "how do you feel?" kind of questions (which tend to be subjective and work in favour of unconventional remedies).

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