Echinacea: Is It Truly A Miracle Immunity Booster?


You’ve probably heard people recommend echinacea to boost the immune system and fight off common colds. A popular herbal supplement, echinacea is derived from a North American flowering plant. Aside from the common cold, echinacea is also used topically for other reasons—such as to heal wounds and to treat dry, itchy skin. (1)

Also known as black sampson, purple coneflower, rudbeckia, or sampson root, echinacea is one of the most widely used herbal supplements sold in the United States today—though it’s been declining in popularity in recent years. (2)

echinacea plant

A popular herbal supplement that is used for the common cold, echinacea is derived from a North American flowering plant.

Echinacea: root, flower, herb or supplements?

When you’re looking into echinacea supplements, it’s important to note that not all echinacea is created equal. In fact, “echinacea” is a broad term that refers to several different species of plants. Some of the more commonly available ones—and thoroughly researched—are Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida.

The uses of echinacea are as diverse as its health benefits; some supplements use the root of the plant, while others use the above-ground parts, including the flowers. Other than the plant itself, echinacea is also available in several different forms—including tinctures, teas, pills, and topical creams.

Health benefits of echinacea

Research on echinacea is hard to interpret, given all these different variables. But since it’s such a popular supplement for improving immune function, among other things, let’s take a look at what the science does tell us about the benefits of echinacea.

Echinacea for the common cold

When cold and upper respiratory infection season rolls around, you’ll hear a lot about building your resilience with echinacea. This makes sense given that echinacea has a long tradition of use in the United States and Europe for the treatment of the common cold. (3)

But if you buy echinacea expecting it to miraculously wipe away your sniffles and sore throat like a magician with a wand, you may be disappointed. In fact, on the whole, research on echinacea for colds and upper respiratory infections is mixed.

Take, for example, the analysis of 24 studies on echinacea for the common cold. (4) Looking at the data across all these double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, researchers concluded that there’s no evidence that echinacea is useful for treating the common cold.

daughter on father's back

Echinacea is considered to be effective in preventing common colds.

They did, however, find that taking it to prevent colds may be effective.

This review included data from studies that used different species of echinacea, different parts of the plant, different dosages, etc. to conclude that certain types of supplements may be more effective than others.

That might explain why a previous analysis of published studies—this one done in 2007—had much more positive results. It found that evidence does support using echinacea for both preventing and treating the common cold. (5) In this review, researchers concluded that echinacea lowered the odds of catching a cold by 58 percent. Also, it decreased the duration of a cold by 1 to 4 days.

But again, this analysis looked at different forms of the herb, making it hard to extrapolate which forms are effective and which aren’t.

So is there a clear takeaway on the benefits of echinacea for the common cold? Unfortunately, it’s unclear how effective it is and which form is best. The good news is that echinacea is a pretty safe supplement, so it might be worth trying if you’re looking to boost your immune system and ward off colds and upper respiratory infections.

Echinacea for wound healing

When you have a skin wound, your body’s first step in healing is to trigger the inflammatory response. But if you’re under stress, your immune system can delay that response.

Since echinacea is used to modulate the immune system, some people use it as a way to speed up wound healing.

close up of wounded leg bandaged

Research shows that echinacea, in combination with other herbs, helps in healing wounds when applied directly to the skin.

Some research does bear out this traditional use. In one study conducted on stressed mice, taking an extract of Echinacea pallida root by mouth for three days before getting a wound and for four days afterward made the wound close up faster. (6)

Other research has found that Echinacea purpurea—in combination with other herbs—may help to heal a wound when applied directly to the skin. This research has been conducted on a skin patch that contains three herbs: Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica), echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), and elderberry (Sambucus nigra).

In one animal study, this patch was shown to improve surgical wound healing better than similar patches that did not contain herbs. (7) Since echinacea was combined with other herbs in this study, it’s impossible to say how much effect was due to echinacea, and how much was due to the other herbs.

Echinacea for itchy skin

Itchy skin—whether it’s due to eczema, dermatitis, or just plain dryness—can be quite uncomfortable. But it’s possible that a topical treatment containing Echinacea purpurea root extract could help put an end to the itch.

In one study, researchers found that adults with itchiness either on the body or on the scalp found significant relief—not just in itchiness, but also in dryness—after using emulsions or shampoo containing echinacea. (8)

If you suffer from itchy skin or scalp, it might be worth giving an echinacea cream or shampoo a try.

Echinacea safety

In general, echinacea is safe to take, at least over the short-term. Research hasn’t determined whether there are any risks of long-term use. (1)

Some people experience nausea or stomach ache when taking echinacea. Be sure to take it with food or a full glass of water to make it easier on your stomach. (1)

Rarely, people have allergic reactions to echinacea. (1)

The Cleveland Clinic mentions specific health conditions, which require a more catious use of echinacea. (9) We recommend you always talk to your healthcare provider before taking echinacea if you have any of the conditions listed, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about how echinacea might interact with any other medications or supplements you’re taking.

The bottom line

In spite of the many variables surrounding types, plant parts, and forms of echinacea available, it remains a very popular supplement for modulating the immune system, improving wound healing, treating skin conditions, and other benefits.

While the evidence doesn’t make for a slam-dunk recommendation of echinacea, the herb has been used for centuries with very few negative reactions reported. If you’re looking to boost your immunity to ward off colds and upper respiratory infections, or if you have irksome itchy skin or poor wound healing, it might be worth giving it a try.

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