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Echinacea

Echinacea is a herb that grows wild in parts of North America. In Europe people use it as a herbal supplement.

Summary

  • Echinacea is a herb that grows in North America
  • There is no scientific evidence to support its use as a cancer treatment
  • Echinacea might have side effects

What is echinacea?

Echinacea is a wild herb. It grows in the Great Plains and eastern parts of North America. It is also grown in Europe .

Common names for echinacea include:

  • coneflower, purple coneflower or American coneflower
  • Kansas snakeroot
  • black sampson or sampson root

There are different varieties including:

  • echinacea purpurea
  • echinacea angustifolia
  • echinacea pallida

Manufacturers make a liquid extract from the leaves, roots or the whole plant .

Echinacea is mostly available as the herbal remedy echinacea purpurea. Some preparations do not say which variety they contain.

There is no scientific evidence to use it as a treatment for cancer in humans.

Manufacturers of echinacea promote it as a supplement. They say it can prevent and lessen the symptoms of the common cold, flu and infections of the airways. It might also work as an antiseptic and help wounds to heal.

Why people with cancer use it

A survey in America looked into complementary and alternative medicine use in adults. They found that echinacea was the most commonly used natural product.

There is no evidence that echinacea can help with cancer. But 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

Laboratory and animal studies of echinacea have shown that it stimulated immune cells. It also prevented inflammation. But there are no clinical trial results to show this in humans. Studies in humans only showed changes to the immune system.

There is continuing research into its use to fight infections, viruses and cancer. In laboratory studies on human colon cancer cells echinacea caused cell death. But this is not enough evidence to use it as a treatment for cancer.

 In some studies researchers found that echinacea could cause chemotherapy to work less well. And it could cause side effects.

How you have it

Echinacea comes as:

  • capsules
  • 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
  • over the internet

Dosages may vary because of different species in tinctures, tablets and liquids. So there is no standard dose.

Some herbalists say you shouldn’t take echinacea for longer than 8 weeks. This is due to possible 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, only buy registered products under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Registered remedies under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have had tests for quality and safety.

Side effects

Echinacea is generally safe to take, and severe side effects seem 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

Using echinacea for longer than 8 weeks at a time might damage your liver or suppress your immune system. Herbalists recommend not to 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 rare chance of a serious allergic reaction to echinacea.

Using echinacea safely

Tell your doctor if you want to replace your cancer treatment with echinacea. Also, if you are thinking of taking it alongside your cancer treatment.

It might be safe to use alongside your other cancer treatment but in some people, it is not.

Echinacea might interfere with how certain chemotherapy drugs, such as etoposide, work.

Pharmacists and doctors sometimes recommend people with lymphoma not to take echinacea. This is because it could interfere with their treatment.

In people with HIV, researchers found that it was safe to take echinacea with the drug etravine.

Talk to your doctor before taking 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 using complementary or alternative cancer therapies. They 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.

Research into echinacea

Some laboratory research says echinacea can boost different types of immune cells. It also says that it can 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.

There are claims that echinacea can relieve side effects from chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But there is no proof of this.

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

Researchers are looking into the benefits of echinacea in fighting infections and viruses.

In 2014 researchers used echinacea in a pilot study on 10 healthy people. A pilot study is a small-scale version of the main study. Pilot studies help to test that all the main parts of the study work together. 

The researchers found that echinacea had some effect on the immune system. But this was only a small study. We need more research.

Researchers published a Cochrane Library systematic review in 2006. A systematic review means that a group of experts gather all the evidence about a particular subject. They then go through it to work out whether there is any evidence to support it. In the review researchers looked at 13 trials. The trials looked at whether 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 review found that there was no evidence that echinacea could prevent the common cold. They recommended more research into how echinacea could help to treat infections. Also, to learn more 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.

In 2012 researchers did a study on more than 700 people. They found that people who took echinacea every day for at least 4 months had fewer colds and few side effects.

Researchers did another Cochrane review in 2014. They found that echinacea products on the market differ widely.

They also found that some types might reduce the risk of getting a cold in between 10 to 20 out of every 100 people (10% to 20%).

The researchers felt that this was a small effect and that the evidence to support it was unclear. This is because the studies used different preparations of echinacea.

In 2013 researchers looked at echinacea angustifolia. It is a variety of echinacea and is used as a treatment for anxiety. They found that all the people in the study who took echinacea felt less anxious after 2 days. They remained so for the 7 days of the study. The effect lasted for 2 weeks after the study.

In 2018 researchers in the USA started another study on echinacea angustifolia. The study is also looking at echinacea as a treatment for anxiety. They want to see if it is a safe and an effective treatment for generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) symptoms.

How much it costs

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)

A word of caution

It is understandable that you might want to try anything if you think it might help treat or cure your cancer. Only you can decide whether to use a complementary cancer therapy such as echinacea.

You could harm your health if you stop your cancer treatment for an unproven treatment.

Many websites might promote echinacea as a cure for cancer. But no reputable scientific cancer organisations support any of these claims. Be cautious about believing this type of information or paying for any complementary cancer therapy over the internet.

Useful organisations

You can get more information about echinacea from the following organisations.

The National Institute for Medical Herbalists

Clover House
James Court
South Street
Exeter
EX1 1EE

Phone: 01392 426022
Email: info@nimh.org.uk

The College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy

Oak Glade
9 Hythe Close
Polegate
East Sussex
BN26 6LQ

Phone: 01323 484353
Email: pamela.bull@phytotherapists.org

Last reviewed: 
18 Jan 2019
  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd Edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009

  • Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold.

    M Karsch-Völk and others

    Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD000530.

  • Immunomodulation mediated by a herbal syrup containing a standardized Echinacea root extract: a pilot study in healthy human subjects on cytokine gene expression.

    B Dapas and others

    Phytomedicine. 2014 September 25;21(11):1406-10.

  • Safety and Efficacy Profile of Echinacea purpurea to Prevent Common Cold Episodes: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. 

    M Jawad, R Schoop and others.

    Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Published online September 16 2012. 

  • Immunopharmacology of the main herbal supplements: a review.

    A Amico and others

    Endocrine and Metabolic Immune Disorder Drug Targets. December 2013;13(4):283-288.

  • Herb-Drug Interaction between Echinacea purpurea and Etravirine in HIV-Infected Patients.

    J Moltó and others

    Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. 2012 October; 56(10): 5328–5331.

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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