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Echinacea No Help for Kid's Colds

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Parents whose kids are suffering the sniffles would try just about anything to help them get better. But at least one herbal "remedy" - echinacea - may simply be a waste of money.

The average child has six to eight colds per year, each lasting about nine days, often resulting in parents' missed work or lost wages. So even unproven "cures" like echinacea may be welcomed with open arms.

But new research on the herbal supplement in the current Journal of the American Medical Association reports kids given echinacea for their colds did not get better because of it.

The study, which involved 407 children between the ages of 2- and 11, split the subjects into two groups, with parents randomly given a bottle containing a syrup with or without echinacea. Neither the researchers nor the parents knew what medication their child would be getting.

When the children started to show signs of having a cold, the parents were instructed to begin treatment with the syrup. Syrup was given for up to 21 days or until cold symptoms went away, whichever came first. Parents were also asked to monitor their child's symptoms and note them in a daily logbook.

When the researchers looked at severity of symptoms and duration of colds, they found no difference in children taking echinacea compared to those who didn't take it. In addition, more kids in the echinacea group got skin rashes during the study.

Parents Searching for Alternatives

While there are a wide variety of over the counter medications claiming to lessen the severity of colds, few have actually been proven effective in children. As a result, physicians like Dr. James Taylor, lead researcher of the study and pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, have become increasingly frustrated with what little there is to offer children in the way of cold remedies.

At the same time, in recent years echinacea has become widely popular in the prevention and treatment of upper respiratory infections, more familiarly known as the common cold. Yearly sales of the herbal supplement are estimated at around $300 million.

Studies on herbals are relatively scarce because unlike manufactured pharmaceuticals, they are not regulated by the FDA. Yet the results of the effectiveness of treating colds with echinacea in adults have been mixed, at best. Still, some users swear by it and are in turn more likely to believe their children will benefit from it as well.

Until now, however, substantial data on the effectiveness and safety of echinacea in children has been lacking. Dr. Chuck Willson, pediatrician at East Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, N.C., says he's been "hesitant to recommend the use of echinacea in children because I had no scientific data on which to make a recommendation. Safety is always the first consideration, especially when taking a medication for a mild illness."

A Silver Lining

While the use of echinacea for cold treatments still raises some questions, researchers continue to hope future studies will reveal any benefits of the herb.

One surprising positive result from the study, for instance, was that children who took echinacea for treatment of their first cold actually experienced fewer second and third colds.

Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, believes this so-called prevention effect will be something many parents will be happy about.

But Taylor says while he'd like to see future studies look more closely at this effect, in the interim he would continue to not recommend echinacea be taken for extended periods of time because of unknown effects on the immune system.

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Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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