Echinacea is a type of herb which is sometimes used as a medical remedy to treat or prevent infections. The use of the herb is relatively common and the historical evidence of its use does not point toward any detrimental effect on an unborn fetus. Despite the lack of evidence for side effects of echinacea in pregnancy, not enough research is available, as of 2011, to prove its safety either. In addition, the proposed beneficial effects of the herb are not scientifically proven.
Three main species of echinacea are used in herbal medicine. These are Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea. The plants are native to the North American continent, and they get their name because when it seeds, it produces a spiny top that looks like a hedgehog; in Greek, this is called echinos. Commonly, the uses of echinacea include prevention and alleviation of infections, along with treatment of conditions like rheumatism and migraines.
Typically, during pregnancy, women are advised to avoid certain medications and foods. This is because the growing fetus is particularly vulnerable to damage while in the womb. Herbal medicines can potentially produce developmental defects, or other problems in the womb, in the same way that conventional medicines can. Echinacea in pregnancy, therefore, requires studies and data to check whether it is safe for use.
Historical data on the use of echinacea in pregnancy has not produced any obvious links between the herb and problems in pregnancy. In addition, a 2000 study by researchers in the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto, Canada, of about 200 women indicated that the herb had no noticeable adverse effects on the health of either the mother or the child. About half of the women in the study had used echinacea in pregnancy in the first three months. This is the same time period that a significant proportion of women are as yet unaware of an unplanned pregnancy, and therefore continue to use herbal medicines, unaware of the potential risk.
Although the available information on the safety of echinacea in pregnancy, as of 2011, shows no significant risk to the pregnant woman or her child, not enough evidence is available to definitively prove this. For safety's sake, therefore, women are generally advised not to take echinacea during pregnancy. The only scientific indications of the usefulness of the herb for health only extend to the common cold and vaginal yeast infections, neither of which poses a danger to the health of the mother or the child.
In addition to the intrinsic risk of using products with known biological activity during pregnancy, other risks may be present with using herbal remedies. Some herbal products from disreputable manufacturers that are labeled as containing echinacea may contain other potentially harmful herbs, or contain no echinacea at all. Natural products are also difficult to test, as individual plants can contain varying levels of the molecules that have a biological effect, and the product may not contain the same amount of active ingredient as is on the label. Different parts of the plant also contain varying levels of the biologically active molecules, so products made from one part can be different from products made from another part.