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What echinacea is

Echinacea is a herb that grows wild in parts of North America. It is grown for commercial use in Europe. Manufacturers of echinacea promote it as a treatment to prevent and lessen the symptoms of the common cold, flu and other lung problems. Available scientific evidence does not support its use for the treatment of cancer in humans.

Other common names for echinacea include coneflower, purple coneflower, American coneflower, Kansas snakeroot, black sampson, and sampson root. There are different varieties of echinacea that you may come across including

  • Echinacea purpurea
  • Echinacea angustifolia
  • Echinacea pallida.

The most widely available as a herbal remedy seems to be echinacea purpurea, although some preparations do not say which variety they contain.

 

Why people with cancer use echinacea

Echinacea is one of the most popular herbal supplements. 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

Results of clinical trials in humans have not shown that echinacea can boost the immune system or fight cancer. But research is continuing into its use as a treatment for fighting infections and viruses. Research is also looking at whether it can reduce some of the side effects of cancer treatment, such as a sore mouth or diarrhoea due to chemotherapy.

There is more about why people with cancer use complementary therapies in our about complementary therapy section.

 

Research into echinacea in health care

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 proved either.

It is not clear how echinacea works. There is some laboratory research to suggest that echinacea can boost the development of different types of immune cells. 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.

Researchers in 1989 reported that echinacea may stimulate the immune system, particularly the cells that monoclonal antibodies target.

A systematic review published by the Cochrane Library in January 2006 looked at the use of echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. This review looked at 13 trials overall. The results of the trials were mixed, with some studies showing it did help with symptoms and others showing no evidence that it helped. Overall, the reviewers agreed that there was no evidence that echinacea prevented the common cold. Some of the studies showed that echinacea might reduce the length of time colds last and relieve symptoms. But there were others that did not show that it worked. 

The authors of the study recommended more research to find out if echinacea can help to treat infections and to find out more about side effects. A study of more than 700 people in Cardiff reported in 2012. It found that when people took echinacea daily for at least 4 months they had fewer colds and few side effects.

A study published in 2010 looked at how well echinacea root worked in people who already had colds. It found that taking echinacea did not make any difference to how long the colds lasted. 

Doing clinical trials using herbal treatments, such as echinacea, is often very difficult. One of the biggest challenges researchers face is finding the best dose. Other problems include

  • 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 echinacea

With these challenges in mind, researchers continue to investigate possible benefits of echinacea in helping to fight infections and viruses. 

If you are interested in research, you may find it helpful to read our section about problems with doing research into complementary and alternative therapies.

 

How you take echinacea

You can buy echinacea as capsules to swallow with water, or in liquid form to dilute and drink. Dosages may vary because a variety of different species are used in tinctures, tablets and liquids and so there is no standard dose. 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 taking it for up to 4 months is safe.

You can also buy echinacea ointment to help heal skin wounds. Echinacea injections are available in some European countries but not in America.

There are many echinacea products available in health food stores, chemists and over the internet. They may contain different amounts and species of echinacea. 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.

 

Side effects

Echinacea is thought to be generally safe to take and serious side effects seem to be rare. The more common side effects of echinacea include

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling sick
  • Stomach ache
  • Constipation
  • Skin reactions (redness, itchiness and swelling) – these are more common in children

Some herbalists say that if you use echinacea for longer than 8 weeks at a time it may damage your liver or suppress your immune system. So they strongly recommend that you don’t take echinacea if you are taking medicines known to affect your liver. If you are taking any other drugs, herbs, or supplements, it is important to check with your doctor before taking echinacea.

There is also the chance of a serious allergic reaction to echinacea but this is very rare.

 

Using echinacea safely

As echinacea is a herbal product, it won’t necessarily have been thoroughly tested for interactions with foods, drugs or other supplements. This means it is difficult to know for sure how safe it is. It may affect how you absorb drugs and change the way that certain drugs work. 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 say there is a risk of allergic reactions such as skin rashes

Pharmacists and doctors sometimes advise people being treated for lymphoma not to take echinacea, because it could interfere with their treatment. It may interfere with how certain chemotherapy drugs work, such as etoposide.

Our advice is to always read the product labels. And if you are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should check with your doctor about safety.

Always check with your doctor before you start using any type of complementary or alternative therapy. It is very important to find out all you can about the therapy before deciding to use it. We certainly don’t recommend that you replace your conventional cancer treatment with any type of supplement like echinacea. It may be safe to take it alongside your cancer treatment but check with your doctor first to make sure.

Our message is

  • Be careful
  • Be wary of any websites or people who claim that echinacea can treat or cure your cancer
  • Be wary of websites selling echinacea for a very high price
  • Make sure you look into the information that is available
  • Talk to your cancer doctor before you buy
  • You may find it useful to read our section on the safety of herbal products
 

The cost of echinacea

Echinacea is sold in health food shops, chemists and over the internet. As with many dietary and herbal products the price can vary depending on

  • The dose
  • The amount you buy
  • Where you buy it (health food shops, chemist or online)
  • If you buy online the prices vary a lot. For example, for 60 capsules containing 1000mg of echinacea, you can pay anywhere between £2:99 and £10:99.
 

Useful organisations

Some of the complementary therapy organisations can offer information about using echinacea.

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Updated: 3 January 2013