Echinacea is an herb that is native to areas east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States. It is also grown in western States, as well as in Canada and Europe. Several species of the echinacea plant are used to make medicine from its leaves, flower, and root. Echinacea was used in traditional herbal remedies by the Great Plains Indian tribes. Later, settlers followed the Indians’ example and began using echinacea for medicinal purposes as well. For a time, echinacea enjoyed official status as a result of being listed in the US National Formulary from 1916-1950. However, use of echinacea fell out of favor in the United States with the discovery of antibiotics. But now, people are becoming interested in echinacea again because some antibiotics don’t work as well as they used to against certain bacteria.

Echinacea is widely used to fight infections, especially the common cold, and the flu. Some people take echinacea at the first sign of a cold, hoping they will be able to keep the cold from developing. Other people take echinacea after cold of flu-like symptoms have started, hoping they can make symptoms less severe or resolve quicker.

Echinacea is also used against other types of infections including urinary tract, ear and throat infections but there is not good scientific evidence to support these uses.

Sometimes people apply echinacea to their skin to treat boils, skin wounds, or burns.

Commercially available echinacea products come in many forms including tablets, juice, and tea.

There are concerns about the quality of some echinacea products on the market. Echinacea products are frequently mislabeled, and some may not even contain echinacea, despite label claims. Don’t be fooled by the term “standardized.” It doesn’t necessarily indicate accurate labeling. Also, some echinacea products have been contaminated with selenium, arsenic, and lead.

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.

How does it work?

Echinacea seems to activate chemicals in the body that decrease inflammation, which might reduce cold and flu symptoms.

Laboratory research suggests that echinacea can stimulate the body’s immune system, but there is no evidence that this occurs in people.

Echinacea also seems to contain some chemicals that can attack yeast and other kinds of fungi directly.

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

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.

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