Today, echinacea is used to fight infections, especially colds and the flu. Herbalists also use it against UTIs, yeast infections, HPV, herpes, ear infections, strep throat, and more.
The herb has deep roots, and we don’t mean the physical kind: It’s native to the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains Indian tribes used it as an herbal remedy. Following the wisdom of the Native Americans, early settlers used it for medicinal purposes until it fell out of favor with the discovery of antibiotics.
Today the herb is found in the form of tablets, tea, and juice, and true to traditional wisdom, it appears to activate chemicals in the body that decrease inflammation, which might tamp down symptoms of respiratory tract infections. It also appears to deliver chemicals that attack yeast and other fungi directly. “I prescribe echinacea seeds and flowers when I need to stimulate the immune system, such as for cold and flu prevention and treatment in the fall and winter,” says Janelle Louis, a functional medicine practitioner at Focus Integrative Healthcare in Overland Park, Kansas. “I also prescribe the root in conditions like abscesses, tonsillitis, acne, and sinusitis, where I need to fight infection, decrease inflammation, and support the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the system.”
A sizable body of scientific literature shows that taking echinacea as soon as you notice signs of a cold can modestly reduce symptoms. Some research also shows that taking echinacea can reduce the risk of catching a cold by 45 to 58 percent, although other studies show no benefit. And one small study suggest that echinacea, alone or in combination with other cold-fighting herbs, can help soothe a sore throat as well as commonly used drug sprays.
How to Use It
To prevent the common cold, most research prescribed 2,400 milligrams of echinacea daily (split across three treatments), with an increase at the first sign of symptoms. Echinacea can cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to ragweed and certain flowers, so check with your healthcare provider before stocking up. “Because of its ability to stimulate the immune system,” Louis says, “I avoid prescribing echinacea for patients with lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune conditions where stimulating the immune system would likely lead to a worsening of symptoms.“ For similar reasons, she also recommends avoiding the herb if you're taking immunosuppressive medication, such as cyclosporine.
One note of caution: Some experts have raised concerns about the quality of certain echinacea products on the market. Some might not actually contain echinacea, and others might be contaminated with selenium, arsenic, and lead. Your doctor or a reputable herbalist can help you find a trusted brand.