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You can thank the beautiful, perennial Aster family of plants for producing echinacea. The name Echinacea is a derivative of the greek word echno, which means spiny—the center of the flower has a spiny hemisphere. The flower petals are purple, and once it blooms the petals slope downward, giving the flower a cone shape and a second name—the cone flower.

Various parts of the plant have been used to make herbal preparations, and they have been studied together and separately to determine if there is any benefit to the herb. There is still conflict concerning results and methods, and no conclusive evidence has been found to support Echinacea treatments.

Medicinal Claims

Oral supplements are used frequently to treat upper respiratory infections, and sometimes as a preventative. There is much evidence to support the claim, according to some publications, but others say that the clinical trials were not well performed—therefore, the results are not strong. Echinacea is also being used to treat genital herpes, although again there is no evidence to support its effectiveness.

Echinacea is said to help fight colds by boosting the immune system, although not all species contain the same amounts of the supposedly effective ingredient. Echinacea purpura is thought to be the most potent of the asters in producing Echinacea, and so far it is the only specie that shows promise for upper respiratory infection treatments.

There are also some murmurs that it can help boost white cell counts after ex-ray treatments and chemotherapy; however, again there is little or unclear evidence to support this claim. It is also not shown effective in children or for the prevention of upper respiratory disease, although claims are still made for these. Dosing and safety for children has not been determined, and a pediatrician should be consulted before giving Echinacea to a child.

Warnings and Interactions

Echinacea should not be taken by those with autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and AIDS. Because Echinacea can produce liver inflammation, it should not be used with drugs that do the same, such as anti-inflammatory drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprophen. Echniacea may impede drugs that are designed to suppress the immune system, like certain steroids. Echinacea is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women.

Some side effects of Echinacea are sore throat, stomach aches and nausea, allergic rashes, hives, muscle aches, headache, and dizziness (drowsiness as well). Some report irregular heartbeats, but whether Echinacea caused it is not known.

The Aster is a lovely wild flower, and may be best left there. If you are considering using the preparation Echinacea to treat an ailment, talk to your health professional first, especially regarding children.

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