Examining the Echinacea Herb

Draw your own conclusions on whether you should use the echinacea herb based on research on effectiveness and side effects.


| November 2014



Echinacea plant

The echinacea herb is one of the most commonly used herbs in North America. There are nine known native species of the plant.

Photo by Fotolia/fragolini

A Doctor’s Guide to Alternative Medicine (Lyons Press, 2014), by Mel Borins, uses scientific research to educate patients and physicians on which traditional medicines and therapies are worth trying, which aren’t and why, and how to use the effective ones safely. Written in clear, accessible language for the layperson while providing citations to full studies for the medical professional, Borins covers natural health products, herbal remedies, acupuncture physical therapies and psychological therapies. In the following excerpt from Chapter 2, "Echinacea for Upper Respiratory Infections," Borins presents research that suggests that the echinacea herb is helpful, research that shows that it doesn't work and his own conclusion.

Do you remember your last cold, and how everyone you met offered some advice or had a folk remedy that was sure to cure the virus? A typical scene might unfold like this:

You call your boss to say you’re not well and when she hears the sound of your runny nasal passages and chesty cough she replies, “Take the day off, go to bed, and drink lots of liquids.” Then Grandpa, who recently moved in with the family, suggests his own remedy, “Eat garlic. That always scares the colds away, and it works on vampires too.” You frown at Grandpa, wondering just how many vampires he’s been fighting off lately. You shuffle slowly up the stairs, climb into bed, and soon your daughter enters, bearing two glasses, each one filled with a suspicious-looking liquid. “My biology teacher,” she announces brightly, “said we should gargle with salt water when we have a cold and we should drink apple cider vinegar every morning.” You reply, “No thanks, Honey,” to the proffered glass of diluted vinegar, but seeing the hurt look on your daughter’s face, you agree to gargle with the (extra salty) salt water.

Dragging yourself out of bed, you shuffle to the bathroom, gargling glass in hand. Your body aches, and your chest hurts when you cough, and all you really want is a rum hot toddy and someone to give you a mentholated chest rub along with lots of sympathy. Finally, your spouse comes in and hands you a glass of water with a cheery, “I put a few drops of echinacea in it. Drink up!” Two days later, you begin to feel much better and you go back to work. Your spouse attributes your speedy recovery to the echinacea supplied every eight hours. So what’s the verdict? Did the echinacea do the job or was it the Vicks on your chest?

The Herb Echinacea

Echinacea is one of the most commonly used herbs in North America. The name, of Greek origin, means hedgehog—a good choice for a plant whose prickly characteristics somewhat resemble the animal. The flower boasts hot-pink or purple daisy-like petals that surround a prominent conical center of dark orange; the blossom sits upon a tall, robust stem with coarse, fuzzy leaves. If anything could tackle a cold, this sturdy plant looks like it has a winning chance.

There are nine known native species, of which Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida are most commonly used. The plant also goes by the name of coneflower, purple coneflower, and American coneflower. The aboveground parts of the plant are used either fresh or dried to make teas, and they can be crushed (expressed) to make extracts. Anecdotally, many of my patients rave about its ability to decrease or stop the symptoms of upper respiratory infections.