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Echinacea can prevent colds

25th June 2007

A re-evaluation of studies into the efficacy of echinacea as a prophylactic against the common cold has shown the herb to be more effective than was previously thought.

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Researchers at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy combined the results of 14 different studies on the herb, publishing their findings in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

They found that the remedy could more than halve the risk of catching a cold in the first place, and cut on average a day and a half from the cold's duration, if it developed.

Echinacea refers to a group of nine plant species native to North America. It is believed to work by strengthening the body's immune system.

In one of the studies, the herb was taken alongside vitamin C, reducing the incidence of cold infection among subjects by 86%.

Even used alone, the herb was linked to a decrease of 68% in infections, and of 35% among patients directly inoculated with a rhinovirus, one of the 200 or so viruses that can cause a cold.

The study, led by the University of Connecticut's Craig Coleman, found around 800 products on the market using different parts of echinacea plants. More work was needed to ensure that all the formulations were safe, researchers concluded.

Experts said the herb appeared to reduce the duration of illness and decrease the severity of cough, headache, and nasal congestion.

The researchers concluded that it had a 'modest' effect against rhinovirus, but a 'marked' effect against some other cold-causing viruses.

But some say the true benefits, and how exactly the plant extracts worked, are still unclear, and that more clinical trials are needed.

Rhinoviruses are responsible for about half of all common colds in children and adults. School children usually catch between seven and 10 colds a year, and adults two to five.

Common colds and flu can be transmitted by hands and contact with commonly-touched surfaces

Professor Ron Cutler, of the University of East London, said people with impaired immune function might benefit from taking echinacea during the winter months to prevent colds and flu, but that healthy people did not require long-term preventative use.

Another cold expert, Professor Ronald Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at the University of Cardiff, said the study had enhanced the validity of herbal remedies like echinacea in the battle against the common cold.


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