Echinacea is an herb that is very popular for use in treatment of colds and flu. Also known as American Coneflower, it was used for centuries by Native Americans before the arrival of European explorers. In the 1800s, its use took off in the United States, and the herb became popular in Europe as well. Echinacea is used in many Western nations because it is believed to promote immune system health and minimize some of the symptoms of sickness.
A perennial plant, Echinacea reaches 1 foot (30 centimeters) to 2 feet (60 centimeters) in height when it is mature. The plant is slightly spiky and has large pink to purple flowers, depending on the variety. The center of the flower forms a cone or seed head that is also spiky and dark brown to red in color. Three species are used for medicinal purposes: Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea purpurea.
The entire plant is used medicinally. It can be dried for use or pressed when fresh to extract juice. Echinacea is found in teas, ointments, pills, juice, as an extract, and combined with other herbs and fruits. Most that is commercially available is a mixture of the three major species. Consumers should be aware that, because holistic herbs have less regulation than conventional drugs, packages labeled as containing Echinacea may not in fact contain the plant.
Echinacea is believed to be a safe herb when used correctly. Studies indicate that it is safe for use by pregnant women and children. For adults, a number of preparations are available to be taken several times a day. For children, extracts that contain alcohol should be avoided. Some individuals may have allergic reactions to Echinacea, including rash and anaphylaxis in extreme cases. People with asthma or weed allergies may want to avoid consuming this plant.
Proponents of Echinacea believe that doses of the herb can prevent colds or shorten the recovery time from a cold, especially when taken in combination with other herbs. If cold symptoms persist, professional medical attention should be sought, especially if the cold is accompanied by high fever, heavy coughing, or an increasing sense of exhaustion. Echinacea should not be used by people who have auto-immune disorders or degenerative nerve disease.