a flower in winter 1.11.11
Like many people, I was drawn to the idea that a flower (Echinacea) could protect me from the common cold. Then along came a group of researchers in Wisconsin to trample on my purple coneflower.
A study described in the Annals of Internal Medicine followed 713 people with at least one of the following symptoms: nasal discharge, nasal obstruction, sneezing, or sore throat. I reach for a cup of hot tea just thinking about them. These germ-infested patients received Echinacea, a placebo, or nothing to treat their colds. Then, for as long as they had the cold, they reported on their symptoms twice a day.
All in all, people taking Echinacea seemed to have slightly less severe symptoms and get better about half a day sooner than those taking nothing or a placebo. Six and a half days of feeling lousy compared to seven days is pretty underwhelming compared to the great pink hope of the flower’s reputation.
Ups and downs of placebos
Being sick is a miserable, helpless experience that sets the typical adult back for about a week. In our busy, DIY culture, being in control of your own health, with an herbal remedy to boot, seems like the ultimate good. I can’t remember the last time I said I was coming down with something without someone suggesting Echinacea, Zinc lozenges, or massive doses of vitamins.
It’s very possible Echinacea gleans much of its glory from the placebo affect. You feel a cold coming on, you take something for it, you believe you will not get sick, and voila! You don’t get sick. I’m all for mind-over-matter solutions. Then again, if you don’t get a cold, how do you know if it was Echinacea or just dumb luck? Either way, I still hold that Echinacea is a far better choice than antibiotics to put one’s mind at ease during a viral infection.
According to the CDC, World Health Organization, and many others around the globe, misuse of antibiotics has given rise to bacteria powerful enough to laugh in the face of drugs that once knocked them out. Some currently treatable diseases may have no effective treatments within ten years. In today’s world, we rely on antibiotics to treat diarrhea, respiratory tract infections, meningitis, STDs, and TB. Not so for Echinacea. If bacteria learn to circumvent Echinacea, hundreds of lives will not be put at risk as they are by the growth of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
Pass the honey, Honey
I know myself and I know my friends. None of us are content to sit around and wait to feel better. Still, the recent report on Echinacea has dampened my enthusiasm for this particular remedy. That said, I’m vigilant about washing my hands and keeping my house stocked with plenty of chamomile tea, honey, and citrus. My Netflix queue sits ready to get me through the worst of cold season — at the top of the list: “Outbreak” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”