Preparations of the plant Echinacea are widely used in some European countries and in North America for common colds. Echinacea preparations available on the market differ greatly as different types (species) and parts (herb, root or both) of the plant are used, different manufacturing methods (drying, alcoholic extraction or pressing out the juice from fresh plants) are used and sometimes also other herbs are added.
We reviewed 24 controlled clinical trials with 4631 participants investigating the effectiveness of several different Echinacea preparations for preventing and treating common colds or induced rhinovirus infections. Our review shows that a variety of products prepared from different Echinacea species, different plant parts and in a different form have been compared to placebo in randomized trials. Due to the significant differences in the preparations tested, it was difficult to draw strong conclusions. Five trials were rated as having a low risk of bias in all five categories of the Cochrane 'Risk of bias' tool. Five more trials were rated as low risk of bias, having an unclear risk of bias in only one category. Eight trials were rated as having a high risk of bias in at least one category and the remaining six as having an unclear risk of bias.
The majority of trials investigated whether taking Echinacea preparations after the onset of cold symptoms shortens the duration, compared with placebo. Although it seems possible that some Echinacea products are more effective than a placebo for treating colds, the overall evidence for clinically relevant treatment effects is weak. In general, trials investigating Echinacea for preventing colds did not show statistically significant reductions in illness occurrence. However, nearly all prevention trials pointed in the direction of small preventive effects. The number of patients dropping out or reporting adverse effects did not differ significantly between treatment and control groups in prevention and treatment trials. However, in prevention trials there was a trend towards a larger number of patients dropping out due to adverse events in the treatment groups.
The evidence is current to July 2013.