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Popular 'cold cure' herbs useless, study finds.

Byline: By MOLLY WATSON Western Mail

Millions swear by it, but according to a new study, the herbal remedy echinacea does nothing at all to help treat the common cold. As part of the research, which took place in America, 399 healthy patients were given either extracts from an echinacea plant or a dummy preparation which did not contain any of the plant.

The patients were then exposed to the common cold virus and their symptoms recorded.

Scientists found patients who took an echinacea plant extract fared no better than those who took a dummy treatment.

But Professor Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff, said it was difficult to judge the value of such studies. He said results will always depend on what part of the plant is used, when it is harvested, where it is grown and the quantities used.

He

said he believed herbal remedies could be effective in the fight against the common cold but he said the best way to find the right echinacea treatment was to consult a herbal specialist.

The Welsh population suffers from six million colds every year, but Professor Eccles said the best way to fight them was to have a healthy balanced diet and lots of sleep.

Stuart Fitzsimons, pictured above, is a medical herbalist at Swiss Herbal Remedies in Cardiff. He said echinacea is one of his top-five-selling products.

He said, 'Over the last 20 years I must have used about a tonne of echinacea. It's probably one of our best-selling herbs, although that's partly because of all the publicity it gets. But I certainly do believe it works - it's had one of the biggest clinical trials in history. The herb comes from America and back in the last century there was a group of doctors called the eclectic physicians who travelled across the country, treating millions of people. Echinacea was one of their favourite herbs and they used it to treat everything from gun wounds to snake bites very successfully.'

Echinacea, which is the scientific name for the daisy-like purple cone flower found in America, is thought to affect our immune system by stimulating the activity of white blood cells. It is sold over-the-counter in pills, drops and lozenges and has annual sales of more than pounds 165m.

Mr Fitzsimons said herbal medicines should not be thought of as alternative medicines as they have been in use for hundreds of years. He said people should try to find a balance between modern forms of medicine which can be obtained at a GP and herbal remedies which can be effectively used to treat problems such as allergies.

About 90% of those taking part in the latest study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, became infected. Symptoms like sneezing, runny noses and sore throats were also about the same, with more than half in both groups showing classic signs of a clinical cold.

The study echoes the results of similar research undertaken in 2003 which found echinacea failed to alleviate cold symptoms and even caused mild skin rashes in some cases.

But Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, an independent group that studies herbs, said people should not dismiss echinacea as a cold remedy.

Mr Blumenthal said the extract used in the latest study was prepared in the lab and not sold in stores. He also added that the herb might work better if higher doses were used.: Alternatives you can try to get relief:Unlike conventional medicines which can only provide relief from the symptoms of colds, there is some evidence alternative medicines can prevent the onset of symptoms or even shorten their duration.

Here are some suggestions from the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University.

Menthol

Provides relief from nasal congestion and also relieves the symptoms of sore throat and cough through a local anaesthetic action.

Garlic

Helps to prevent common cold and influenza infections.

Zinc

Early treatment of common cold with zinc lozenges may shorten the duration of common cold symptoms by several days.

Antioxidants

When white blood cells ingest viruses and bacteria they use powerful disinfectants to destroy the infections. This can damage neighbouring cells and cause inflammation which results in severe common cold symptoms. Antioxidant compounds, which can be found in vitamin C and garlic, repair this damage.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jul 29, 2005
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