Echinacea and Swine Flu

As a follow up to my earlier post about alternative medicine and influenza, I did a little more probing among immunologist contacts of contacts.

There are several facts to consider if you’re thinking of taking echinacea to help protect you from swine flu, or indeed any form of influenza or colds.

Generally, taking these complementary therapies is probably a little like shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolted, if you’re already got a cold/flu (of any strain). Taken as a preventative, however, there is some clinical evidence that echinicea can lessen the symptoms of the common cold (Shah et al, see footnote reference) but only if you’re been taking it for a while before (perhaps a week or a few weeks before you get the flu/cold virus. But, you have to give yourself a break from taking this herbal remedy every once in a while as its efficacy wears off if you take it all the time, there is scant evidence to explain why or to give a specific optimal stop and start time.

Many of the deaths of the 1918 flu pandemic were among healthy young men, due to the immune system going into overdrive – the so-called cytokine storm. In contrast, seasonal flu tends to kill the elderly, with secondary infections, such as bacterial pneumonia setting in. However, at the time of the 1918 pandemic medicine did not fully understand the nature of the infection let alone the cause of deaths. At the moment, it is not entirely clear what caused the recent deaths in Mexico ascribed to swine flu. So, it is difficult to unscramble cause and effect and whether H1N1 (swine flu is causing a cytokine storm or something else).

The scientific literature suggests that these herbal remedies aren’t powerful enough in their effects to make any difference to a full-blown cytokine storm. But, it’s worth considering how they might work if at all. Do they stimulate the immune system or reduce viral load? Echinacea supposedly stimulates the production of neutrophils and T cells, but also has antiviral properties.

Concerns about “adding to” the cytokine storm may be unfounded if one recent laboratory test (Sharma et al, 2009) proves true because that test suggest that echinacea may reverse cytokine production. However, a more recent study suggests it could enhance cytokine production (Senchina et al, 2009).

Sharma et al (2009). Induction of multiple pro-inflammatory cytokines by respiratory viruses and reversal by standardized Echnicea, a potent anti-viral herbal extract. Antiviral Res. 2009 in press.

Senchina et al (2009). Echinacea tennesseensis ethanol tinctures harbor cytokine- and proliferation-enhancing capacities. Cytokine2009 May;46(2):267-72.

A factor that confounds almost all studies of any herbal medicine, is that different parts of the plant, different members of the family, different extraction processes, quantification of active substances, and contra-indications for other drugs and conditions should all be considered in any assessment.

Echinacea is interesting but its efficacy is unproven. It might be worth trying for someone at risk, perhaps likely to come into contact with an infected individual but only if taken in advance and with advice from one’s physician.

Research Blogging IconShah, S., Sander, S., White, C., Rinaldi, M., & Coleman, C. (2007). Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 7 (7), 473-480 DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(07)70160-3


  1. Should I send staff home who have normal “fluie” symptoms?

  2. If you mean your staff have actual flu symptoms – aching joints, heaadache, fever, sore throat, cough, lethargy, then yes…they shouldn’t be at work suffering and spreading that virus either. What kind of boss are you?

  3. Phyllis Lewis

    And if “staff” making it sound like servitude, IS sent home, what preperations have been made for single-paycheck families??

    This world is FULL of families with no support other than one person’s income. I know, I’m one! And before it is said, not everyone has savings to live upon. Mine were taken by an illness well before I went to work 9 years ago, at 41. My husband has been disabled for 4 of those years and is fully dependent upon my support. If I do not work, we lose everything.

    So?? Will I work sick?? Will, and have, with regular flu till I came close to having pneumonia instead. I was forced from my job, ended up a month behind on everything and it has taken me till now, 5 months later, to catch up, fighting all the way NOT to lose my home.

    REAL PEOPLE, will work sick to support their families and anyone who doesn’t realize that needs a reality check! Real jobs have no PAID sick leave. Staying home is fine for the rich or “salaried”, but hourly workers have to work that hour to buy food, put gas in a car, get medicines, and pay bills.

    Check a little further before you wonder what kind of Boss lets you work sick?
    He’s the one who DOES care if your children get fed tonight!!

  4. Sorry to hear about your problems Phyllis, you raise an interesting point, which as a Brit, where a statutory “sick pay” system is in place hadn’t occurred to me. As to the word staff implying servitude…not over this side of the Pond it doesn’t, it’s purely a synonym for employee; no inferiority is implied by its use.

    Of course, I’m afraid if you’re truly sick with influenza and pneumonia and going out to work, then you are knowingly spreading a virus that can and does kill. Working through it could lead to your own demise too, then who’s going to feed your children?

  5. Phyllis Lewis

    Ahh, that explains the use of the term. My apology for not understanding. I do wish your “sick pay” system knew how to do some “pond hopping”. *smiles*

    The only “system” we have in place is “Employee at Will”. It means simply, your fault, my fault, or no ones fault at all, they can end your employment for no reason whatsoever.

    The posters just went up this week about the H1N1 virus. If you have flu symptoms, it must be diagnosed specifically AS swine flu to be allowed to miss work without being pointed for it. If it is not H1N1, you are pointed for the time you miss. In short, they have implied we should work through basic flu, just not the swine version.

    Unemployment is so high in our area, I have no doubt I would not be the only one working sick. Here , at least 5 major employers have either closed their doors, or moved out of state putting 3500 plus out of work.

    But rather than continue on such a morbid note, I have used echinacea as a medicine in this household for many years. When I start feeling ill, I begin a round, 3 capsules of herb (2280mg) two times a day.

    It did not fully cure last years strain of flu. If I start becoming sick this fall, I will use it again even though it was not 100% effective against the last strain. Over the years, it has either cured, or made the symptoms less severe in flu outbreaks. I trust it.

  6. David Bradley

    That’s disgraceful…thanks for the insight Phyllis

  7. Should I send staff home who have normal “fluie” symptoms?

  8. David Bradley

    It’s not for me to advise you on company policy, but personally I think no one should be at work/in public if they have any form of flu (other than man-flu, of course, which is a different matter altogether). Flu spreads through interpersonal contact and touching infected surfaces, it kills. Do you really want staff with genuine influenza spreading the virus among their colleagues and thence passing it on to elderly, infirm, and infant friends and relatives?

  9. How To Prevent Flu

    I think more of the concern with regard to how to prevent flu is about preventing its spread.. not really lessening its symptoms. Since it has already achieved pandemic status, right now everyone is most concerned with how to stop it from further spread.. Not as much with making it easier for those who already have it, sadly.

  10. Detox Diet Recipes

    the spread of AH1N1 or Swine Flu is really scary. It is a good thing that this virus is not very deadly. We are advised to take Vitamin-C and to wear face masks.

  11. For many years now i have been taking berocca with water first thing in the morning when i wake up. Before i took it regularly i would get sick at least twice every winter leaving me off work for up to a week at a time. Since taking it i go through whole winters without getting sick or if i do it would be minor and only require a single day or two absent.
    As a minor prevention guard against “swine flu” i’d say the B vitamin group, vitamin C and other components of berocca surely are better than taking nothing. I have used echinacea liquid on an inflamed sore throat cough as well with great results within 20 minutes, the cough disappeared and my throat soreness subsided. Didn’t taste pleasant, but worked.

  12. This is very important, always wash your hands at least 20 seconds with soap and water or used an alcohol based cleaner. Make sure to cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough.

  13. We should be thankful that the swine flu did not spread very rapidly. it is not very deadly like Ebola but swine flu can still kill you.

  14. Hey mate, thanks 4 writing but this page isn’t vewable when using Chrome it is doubled up.

  15. David Bradley

    No idea what you’re on about Diemer, looks perfectly fine in Chrome to me…

  16. For me the basic prevention of any disease comes with proper hygiene, clean surroundings, healthy foods, regular exercise and a positive outlook on life.

  17. David Bradley

    @Garcia Yes, all those things can help, but exposure to a virulent strain of an airborne pathogen can have even the fittest most positively hygienic of individuals succumb to illness, regardless of your basic prevention measures, I’m afraid.