Echinacea, placebo: Equals at treating or preventing a cold!

September 1, 2005

Pediatricians keep telling parents that they have no cure to offer for a child's runny nose, that antibiotics don't work on a cold, and that Mom and Dad will just have to put up with Baby's symptoms. This is all part of a campaign for more judicious use of antibiotics-an effort that has, increasingly, been effective.

The downside is that this advice, although true, extends no comfort to young cold sufferers or their parents. Many parents turn to herbal remedies that don't require a prescription, therefore, when the next cold comes along. These products probably do no harm; whether they do good is another question.

Consider the extract of the root of the purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. Many consumers swear by the properties of this herbal in warding off infection and relieving symptoms, but they may not be aware of a study reported last month in the New England Journal of Medicine that tested Echinacea against placebo and found it wanting: The frequency of colds and their attendant miseries were about the same for participants in the placebo arm of the study as they were for those taking the herb. You can mention this gem of information to parents who ask about herbal remedies for the common cold, but true devotees probably won't be impressed. And it isn't as if you had anything more effective to offer....