Should You Take Echinacea Supplements?

Ruud de Man / Getty Images
Ruud de Man / Getty Images
  • Echinacea is a plant native to North America that was traditionally used in some Native American medicinal practices for wound healing.

  • Echinacea has recently been touted for its immune-boosting benefits.

  • Limited evidence suggests that echinacea could offer short-term benefits but it should not be taken daily.

When you feel a cold coming on, you might reach for echinacea supplements to stop the sniffles. Some evidence suggests echinacea might help reduce the effects of upper respiratory tract infections but findings are limited.

Echinacea, or purple coneflower, is an herb traditionally used in some Native American medicinal practices for wound healing. Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia are two of the most common varieties used today in natural medicine for immune support.

Echinacea supplements touting immune-boosting benefits are available as teas, tinctures, and gummies. But they shouldn't be taken daily, according to Debra G. Bell, MD, an integrative medicine family physician and co-director of education at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at UW Medicine in Seattle.

“In general, echinacea should be used at the first sign of symptoms or exposure to illness or for prevention when in high exposure setting,” Bell told Verywell in an email.

There are nine different species of echinacea plants but only three are commonly used in botanical medicine—Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida. Supplements may contain one or multiple varieties but this isn’t always listed on the product’s label.

Are Echinacea Supplements Good for Kids?

Echinacea is available in supplements specifically designed for kids and there is some evidence to suggest that these can be effective.

A 2021 randomized controlled study found that echinacea may help prevent viral respiratory tract infections in children better than vitamin C. However, it’s important to note that this study was funded by A. Vogel AG, a maker of echinacea supplements.

Another study from 2020 published in the American Journal of Otolaryngology found that giving kids with recurrent tonsillitis echinacea along with an antibiotic resulted in better outcomes than using the antibiotic on its own.

It's possible for kids to develop a rash or have an allergic reaction after taking echinacea. But echinacea supplements are generally safe for short-term use, according to Sunshine Weeks, ND, an assistant professor in the department of botanical medicine at Bastyr University California. She recommends speaking with a healthcare provider to determine the best dosage and option before starting the supplements.

“When I do give echinacea, I do dose it pretty high, so I like to find the kids’ formulas that are glycerites,” Weeks said.

Tinctures and glycerites are two common preparations in botanical medicine but glycerites are made with glycerin instead of alcohol so they are safe for kids. Glycerites taste sweet which also helps mask the taste of echinacea which may be too strong or bitter for children, according to Weeks.

Should You Take Echinacea?

Some research supports the short-term use of echinacea after exposure to prevent a common cold. Although more research is needed, short-term use seems safe for most adults so it could be used without too much risk.

“It is usually well tolerated but some can experience gastrointestinal upset, headache, or dizziness,” Bell said.

Echinacea also causes a tingling sensation on the tongue which is normal and usually only lasts for a few minutes.

Some people should avoid echinacea according to Bell. It is not recommended for people with an autoimmune condition or people undergoing chemotherapy since echinacea may interfere with certain chemotherapy agents.

If you decide to take echinacea, Bell recommended supplements because teas typically aren’t potent enough to offer substantial medicinal benefits.

However herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA and a 2021 ConsumerLab test found that one-third of echinacea supplements contained less echinacea than the label promised.

“Dosage will vary depending on the product. In general, echinacea in extract form of whole plant, root or combined root and aerial parts is most effective,” Bell said.

Scientists are still learning about the benefits of echinacea but there is limited evidence to suggest it may offer short-term immune benefits. Echinacea is safe for most people but you should consider talking to a healthcare provider before starting a new supplement routine.