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Echinacea for the Common Cold FREE

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The full report is titled “Echinacea for Treating the Common Cold. A Randomized Trial.” It is in the 21 December 2010 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine (volume 153, pages 769-777). The authors are B. Barrett, R. Brown, D. Rakel, M. Mundt, K. Bone, S. Barlow, and T. Ewers.

Ann Intern Med. 2010;153(12):I-43. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-153-12-201012210-00001
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What is the problem and what is known about it so far?

Acute upper respiratory infections, usually referred to as colds, are common around the world and in every age group. Although these illnesses rarely result in serious consequences, they cause unpleasant symptoms, including runny nose, sore throat, nasal stuffiness, and cough, and lead to loss of work and school time. Various prescription, over-the-counter, and alternative medications are used to lessen symptoms. Echinacea, an herbal preparation, is a popular remedy in the United States for the common cold.

Why did the researchers do this particular study?

To determine whether echinacea could decrease the severity of cold symptoms or shorten the time that persons experienced cold symptoms. They also wanted to explore how echinacea might interact with the immune system in fighting a cold.

Who was studied?

More than 700 persons of either sex in Dane County, Wisconsin, aged 12 to 80 years, with no current symptoms from allergic rhinitis (a hay fever–like disease) or asthma, who were experiencing symptoms that they and the investigators determined were probably due to a common cold. Pregnant women and those with immunosuppressive conditions, such as persons receiving cancer chemotherapy, were not entered into the study.

How was the study done?

Participants were randomly assigned to receive no pill; a pill that they knew contained echinacea; or a pill that could be either echinacea or a placebo, but they were not told which. Patients recorded their symptoms twice a day.

What did the researchers find?

Participants who received echinacea had a very slight (7- to 10-hour) decrease in the duration and severity of their cold symptoms (out of approximately 1 week) and a minor decrease in how severe the cold seemed. However, these small differences could have occurred by chance. Echinacea caused no apparent side effects, and immune function did not significantly differ between persons who did or did not receive echinacea.

What were the limitations of the study?

The study was done in a single geographic area. It was also done during the winter, and some of the participants may have had influenza (the flu) rather than a cold. The severity and length of symptoms varied more widely than the investigators had predicted when they planned the study, which may have prevented them from more precisely detecting the effect of echinacea.

What are the implications of the study?

People who take echinacea to treat colds may experience a decrease in the length and severity of their cold symptoms but to such a small degree that they may not care about the difference. Although many studies of echinacea have been performed, researchers still disagree about its benefit in treating the common cold. This study is unlikely to change minds about whether to take this remedy.





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