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Echinacea (E. angustifolia DC, E. pallida, E. purpurea [Latin]), also known as purple coneflower, is a perennial flower native to eastern North America. Native Americans prized Echinacea for its medicinal value and, thanks to recent European studies that confirm its ability to boost the immune system, today echinacea is once again one of the most widely used herbal supplements in the United States. In fact, it is estimated that echinacea accounts for about 10 percent of total dietary sales in the United States.

Echinacea won’t keep you from getting the common cold, but it you do catch a cold and take echinacea when symptoms first begin, your symptoms may be less severe and your recovery quicker than if you take nothing at all.

Several studies support the use of echinacea for the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections (URIs). Commercial preparations containing E. purpurea (the variety believed to provide the most potent treatment for colds) are popular in both Europe and the United States.

Echinacea has been studied alone and in combination preparations for immune system stimulation (including in cancer patients receiving radiation treatments or chemotherapy). Studies have shown that echinacea enhances the ability of white blood cells (macrophages) to digest invading microorganisms and increases the vitality of T-lymphocytes, which are crucial to a strong immune system. Oral doses of echinacea have been used to treat numerous viruses, bacteria, and fungi, including vaginal Candida albicans infections and genital herpes.

Scientific studies have also supported the Native American traditional use of this herb to speed wound healing. Echinacea contains echinacein, a chemical that prevents germs from penetrating and destroying healthy cells while encouraging the formation of fibroblasts needed to form new tissue.

In addition, echinacea has been shown to kill germs and decrease pain and inflammation when applied to external injuries. Topical preparations containing echinacea can be used to speed the healing of cuts, burns, eczema, herpes, and cold sores.

The German Commission E, an expert panel that evaluates the safety and efficacy of herbs, discourages the use of echinacea in patients with autoimmune diseases since stimulating the immune system could aggravate conditions that are generated by an already overactive immune system. People with HIV should also avoid echinacea, since the AIDS virus may become more aggressive if white blood cells in the immune system are stimulated.

Echinacea looks like a pretty, purple black-eyed Susan, and is easy to grow, even in poor, rocky soil. However, it takes 3 to 4 years for these roots to grow large enough to harvest, so you might want to buy it at your local health food store; most pharmacies and even some grocery stores now carry at least some products containing echinacea. Echinacea is available in capsules, expressed juice, tinctures, and teas. It is also included in several commercial combination products used to treat cold or flu symptoms. For treatment of cold or flu, begin taking echinacea immediately upon onset of symptoms. The usual dosage is 500 to 1000 milligrams in capsules or .75 to 1.5 milliliters of tincture by mouth daily for 5 to 7 days. If you want to try echinacea on a scrape, apply tincture or glycerin extract directly to the wound.

People that are allergic to ragweed or other members of the aster family may be allergic to echinacea and develop hives or a rash. Other reported complaints include dizziness, drowsiness, headache, muscle aches, nausea, sore throat, and upset stomach. In very rare cases echinacea was reported to cause liver and kidney damage and irregular heartbeat. People taking drugs that may harm the liver, such acetominophen, steroids, or antifungal medications, should not take echinacea. Echinacea may interfere with the action of drugs prescribed to suppress the immune system, such as prednisone.

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