Simple respiratory infections include sinus infections and the common cold and up to about 80% of the time they are self-limiting. Up to 20% are complicated and lead to bronchitis, pneumonia, tonsillitis, conjunctivitis, otitis, pharyngitis or bacterial sinusitis. Prevention of respiratory tract infections is a desired goal of course but often frequent hand washing, healthy eating, regular exercise and fresh air and not smoking are not enough. Here is where one of the valued aspects of Echinacea comes in. Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) is used for the prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections, as well as some other uses, and previous published studies have shown that Echinacea has anti-inflammatory, antiviral and immunomodulatory effects.
The purpose of this current meta-analysis was to evaluate the efficacy of Echinacea on respiratory tract recurrent and complications from these infections and specifically to see if 2-4 months of Echinacea products could prevent recurrent respiratory tract infections which of course then also prevents complications.
A comprehensive literature search was done and specifically randomized, placebo-controlled trials using Echinacea preparations in healthy individuals over 2-4 months for prevention of respiratory tract infections. Of the 101 clinical trials that were found, 89 did not meet the full inclusion criteria. Of the 12 remaining, 6 were eliminated due to methodology or test materials. Two of these 6 studies reported significant benefits of Echinacea treatment, with a relative risk of 0.663 and 0.734 (a relative risk of < 1 means that a respiratory tract infection is less likely to recur in those taking Echinacea vs. those taking placebo). In four studies that included cases and data on those having at least one recurrent respiratory tract infection, the relative risk was also < 1. When comparing the alcohol extracts with the pressed Echinacea juices, there was a more pronounced effect from the alcohol extracts. In the largest study, there was not only a reduction in respiratory tract infections, there were less viral infections in the nasal passages and corresponded to a 58% reduction in the risk of viral re-infection. In individuals with recurrent respiratory tract infections and who had risk factors such as stress, poor sleep and were active smokers, the benefits were even greater. Data from 3 of the studies also demonstrated that there was a statistically significant relative risk for complications such as conjunctivitis, otitis media, tonsillitis and sinusitis and even a 64.9% reduction in pneumonia in those taking Echinacea products. Of additional importance, antibiotic use declined in three studies in those using Echinacea compared with control groups or standard treatments.
In summary, this meta-analysis demonstrates that Echinacea containing products significantly reduce the risk of recurrent respiratory tract infections in healthy individuals and in those with risk factors.
Reference: Schapowal A, Klein P, Johnston S. Echinacea reduces the risk of recurrent respiratory tract infections and complications: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Adv Ther. 2015;32(3):187-200.