Echinacea is a herb that grows wild in parts of North America. It is a herbal supplement used widely in Europe.
There is no scientific evidence that supports using it to treat cancer in humans. Manufacturers of echinacea promote using it to prevent and lessen the symptoms of the common cold, flu and some lung problems.
Common names for echinacea include:
- coneflower, purple coneflower or American coneflower
- Kansas snakeroot
- black sampson or sampson root
You may come across different varieties including:
- echinacea purpurea
- echinacea angustifolia
- echinacea pallida
It is most widely available as the herbal remedy echinacea purpurea, but some preparations do not say which variety they contain.
Why people with cancer use echinacea
A survey in America looking into complementary and alternative medicine use in adults found that echinacea was the most commonly used natural product.
Although there is no evidence that echinacea can help with cancer, some people take it because they believe it might:
- boost their immune system
- fight their cancer
- give them some control over their cancer and its treatment
- treat their cancer if conventional treatment can no longer offer a possible cure
There are no clinical trial results to show that echinacea can boost the immune system or fight cancer in humans. But there is continuing research into its use to fight infections, viruses and cancer.
There is also research looking at whether it can reduce some of the side effects of cancer treatment such as a sore mouth or diarrhoea due to chemotherapy.
How you have echinacea
Echinacea comes as:
- a liquid to dilute and drink
- an ointment
- injections in some European countries (not available in the USA)
You can buy many echinacea products from health food stores, chemists and over the internet.
Dosages may vary because a variety of different species are used in tinctures, tablets and liquids and so there is no standard dose. Tinctures must be made with a minimum of 45% alcohol in order to work.
Some herbalists say that you shouldn’t take echinacea for longer than 8 weeks because of side effects. But a study in Cardiff in 2012 seemed to show that it is safe to take for up to 4 months.
You can also buy echinacea ointment to help heal skin wounds. Echinacea injections are available in some European countries but not in America.
In Europe it is important to buy only products that are registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies that are registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.
Possible side effects
Echinacea is generally safe to take and serious side effects seem rare.
The more common side effects of echinacea include:
- feeling sick
- stomach ache
- skin reactions (redness, itchiness and swelling) – these are more common in children
Some herbalists say using echinacea for longer than 8 weeks at a time might damage your liver or suppress your immune system. They recommend that you do not take echinacea if you are taking medicines known to affect your liver. Check with your doctor first if you are having any other drugs, herbs, or supplements.
There is also a very rare chance of a serious allergic reaction to echinacea.
Research into echinacea in health care
It is not clear how echinacea works. There is some laboratory research to suggest that echinacea can boost the development of different types of cells in the immune system. And some compounds found in echinacea may help to decrease inflammation, and kill bacteria and viruses. But human trials haven’t been able to prove this.
There is no scientific evidence to show that echinacea can help treat, prevent or cure cancer in any way.
Some therapists have claimed that echinacea can help to relieve side effects from cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But this hasn’t been proven either.
Doing clinical trials using herbal treatments is often difficult. Challenges researchers face include:
- finding the best dose
- finding out which part of the plant to use, for example the stem, flowers, leaves or root
- looking at the differences between the different varieties of the herb
There is ongoing research into the possible benefits of echinacea in helping to fight infections and viruses.
Some laboratory research suggests that echinacea can help develop different types of cells in the immune system. And, some substances found in echinacea might help reduce inflammation, and kill bacteria and viruses. But human trials haven’t been able to prove this.
A systematic review published by the Cochrane Library in January 2006 used13 trials to look into how using echinacea might treat and prevent the common cold.
Some of the studies showed that it might reduce the length of time colds last and relieve symptoms. But others showed that it did not work.
The reviewers agreed that there was no evidence that echinacea could prevent the common cold. And, they recommended more research to find out if echinacea can help to treat infections and to learn about its side effects.
A study in 2010 looked at how well echinacea root worked for people who already had colds. It found that taking echinacea did not make any difference to how long the colds lasted.
A 2012 study of more than 700 people in Cardiff found that people who took echinacea every day for at least 4 months had fewer colds and few side effects.
Using echinacea safely
We do not recommend that you replace your conventional cancer treatment with any type of supplement like echinacea.
It might be safe to use alongside your other cancer treatment but talk to your doctor and a qualified herbalist first to be sure.
Echinacea might interfere with how certain chemotherapy drugs, such as etoposide, work. Pharmacists and doctors sometimes advise people being treated for lymphoma not to take echinacea, because it could interfere with their treatment.
It is strongly recommended that you don’t take echinacea if you:
- are pregnant or breastfeeding
- have a medical condition that affects your immune system, such as an autoimmune disease, HIV or AIDS
- are taking drugs to suppress your immune system, because it may work against them
- are under the age of 12 – the medical health regulatory association (MHRA) says there is a risk of allergic reactions such as skin rashes
Always ask your doctors and nurses about whether any complementary or alternative cancer therapy you are thinking of using might interact with your other treatments.
If your treatment team don’t have the information you need they can direct you to other people who can help.
When it comes to any type of complementary or alternative therapy:
- be careful
- be wary of any websites or people who claim that it can treat or cure your cancer
- make sure you look into all the information that is available first
- be wary of buying products on websites, especially if they are asking for a lot of money
The cost of echinacea
Echinacea is sold in health food shops, chemists and over the internet. The price can vary depending on:
- the dose
- the amount you buy
- where you buy it (health food shops, chemist or online)
The prices vary a lot if you choose to buy it online. For example, 60 capsules containing 1000mg of echinacea could cost anywhere between £2.99 and £10.99.
You can get more information about echinacea from the following organisations.