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Cold-Fighting Properties of Echinacea Questioned

December 21, 2010

A popular herbal supplement viewed by many as a way to beat the common cold actually has minimal effect in dealing with the illness, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health said on Monday.

In a randomized trial, Bruce Barrett, an associate professor of family medicine at UW-Madison, and his colleagues selected over 700 people between the ages of 12 and 80, each of whom were in the early stages of a cold.

The study participants were separated into various groups, one of which received no medicine, one of which was given Echinacea pills, and one of which was given either the herbal supplement or a placebo, without knowing which was which.

Each of the subjects was then asked to record his or her symptoms for the duration of his or her cold. According to a UW-Madison press release, those who took Echinacea did experience a slight shortening of their cold symptoms (by about 7 to 10 hours), but the results were not considered significant in the light of the cost of the supplement and the effort required to take it.

“Trends were in the direction of benefit, amounting to an average half-day reduction in the duration of a weeklong cold or an approximate 10 percent reduction in overall severity,” Barrett said in a statement on Monday. “However, this dose regimen did not make a large impact on the course of the common cold, compared either to blinded placebo or to no pills.”

However, he added that “adults who have found echinacea to be beneficial should not discontinue use based on the results of this trial,” because there were no harmful side effects discovered. The UW-Madison study was published Monday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Echinacea, which is also known as the purple coneflower, is a flowering plant that is a member of the daisy family and is commonly found in eastern and central North America. Previous research at the University of Connecticut had said that the herb could help reduce the likelihood of catching a cold by as much as half and reduce the duration of the symptoms by an average of 1.4 days.

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