updated 12/8/2003 4:39:13 PM ET 2003-12-08T21:39:13

Echinacea failed to relieve children’s cold symptoms and appeared to cause skin rashes in some cases, a study of 407 youngsters found. It is one of the largest studies yet to question the benefits of the popular but unproven herbal remedy.

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With reported sales of more than $300 million annually, echinacea is one of the most widely used herbal remedies nationwide. Also known as the purple coneflower, echinacea is sold in a variety of over-the-counter preparations, including pills, drops and lozenges that are purported to boost the body’s disease-fighting immune system.

Anecdotal reports and some animal studies suggest the herb can prevent and relieve respiratory infections, but human studies have had mixed results. The herb was not effective at treating colds in a small study of college students published last year.

In the current study of 407 Seattle-area children ages 2 to 11, echinacea plant extract worked no better than a dummy preparation in reducing sneezing, runny noses and fever.

“We did not find any group of children in whom echinacea appeared to have a positive benefit,” said the researchers, led by Dr. James Taylor of the University of Washington’s Child Health Institute.

Study details
Symptoms lasted an average of nine days in children given echinacea and in those taking the placebo, and the overall severity of symptoms were similar.

Mild skin rashes occurred in 7 percent of colds treated with echinacea but in only 2.7 percent of colds treated with the dummy preparation. None of the rashes required medical treatment.

The findings appear in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Healthy patients were enrolled and followed for four months. At the outset, parents were instructed to call the researchers when their children developed at least two cold symptoms. Parents then were asked to start administering treatment.

That lag time may explain why no benefits were found, said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, an independent group that studies herbs. He said echinacea is thought to work best if taken as soon as the first symptoms appear.

Some of the children had multiple colds during the study, but there were 33 fewer colds in the echinacea group — results Blumenthal said suggest that echinacea might have helped prevent subsequent colds.

Taylor called those results could be just a fluke. The study was not designed to examine prevention.

Blumenthal said the rashes that developed may have been a rare side effect from pollen in the echinacea plant flower. The echinacea used in the study was made by the German company Madaus AG and contained extract mostly from the flower. Blumenthal said many echinacea products are made instead from the root.

Jim Bruce, president of Madaus’ United States-based subsidiary, said numerous previous studies showed the product to be effective at preventing and treating colds.

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