Echinacea and the common cold

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of NIH, has been in existence for nearly 20 years, much of the time under the intense scrutiny of the mainstream medical community. Despite NCCAM's attempts to verify the effectiveness of alternative healing practices, most if not all rigorously studied modalities have been shown to be ineffective. The benefit of another alternative staple, echinacea, is questioned with the publication of a NCCAM-sponsored study testing the benefit of the herbal remedy for treating the common cold. More than 700 patients in Wisconsin with new-onset common cold were assigned to one of four groups: no pills, placebo pills (blinded), echinacea pills (blinded), or echinacea pills (unblinded). The primary outcome was severity of the cold by self reporting with secondary outcomes of interleukin-8 levels and neutrophil counts from nasal washes. The comparison of the two blinded groups showed a trend toward benefit for the echinacea group (an average decrease in duration of cold of 7-10 hours out of 1 week; P = 0.089), but no difference in mean illness duration. There were no differences in the secondary outcomes. The authors concluded that the differences in illness duration and severity were not statistically significant with echinacea compared to placebo (Ann Intern Med 2010;153:769-777).