MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Many hard-nosed sceptics might claim that there is no herbal treatment for upper respiratory infections that makes the slightest difference difference. But is this assumption really correct?

According to my own research of 2004, it is not. Here is the abstract of our systematic review:

Acute respiratory infections represent a significant cause of over-prescription of antibiotics and are one of the major reasons for absence from work. The leaves of Andrographis paniculata (Burm. f.) Wall ex Nees (Acanthaceae) are used as a medicinal herb in the treatment of infectious diseases. Systematic literature searches were conducted in six computerised databases and the reference lists of all papers located were checked for further relevant publications. Information was also requested from manufacturers, the spontaneous reporting schemes of the World Health Organisation and national drug safety bodies. No language restrictions were imposed. Seven double-blind, controlled trials (n = 896) met the inclusion criteria for evaluation of efficacy. All trials scored at least three, out of a maximum of five, for methodological quality on the Jadad scale. Collectively, the data suggest that A. paniculata is superior to placebo in alleviating the subjective symptoms of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection. There is also preliminary evidence of a preventative effect. Adverse events reported following administration of A. paniculata were generally mild and infrequent. There were few spontaneous reports of adverse events. A. paniculata may be a safe and efficacious treatment for the relief of symptoms of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection; more research is warranted.

A. Paniculata (Burm.f.) Wall ex Nees (Acanthaceae family), also known as nemone chinensi, Chuān Xīn Lián, has traditionally been used in Indian and Chinese herbal medicine mostly as an antipyretic for relieving and reducing the severity and duration of symptoms of common colds and alleviating fever, cough and sore throats, or as a tonic to aid convalescence after uncomplicated respiratory tract infections. The active constituents of A. paniculata include the diterpene, lactones commonly known as the andrographolides which have shown anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-allergic, and immune-stimulatory activities. A. Paniculata has also been shown, in vitro, to be effective against avian influenza A (H9N2 and H5N1) and human influenza A H1N1 viruses, possibly through blocking the binding of viral hemagglutinin to cells, or by inhibiting H1N1 virus-induced cell death.

But our systematic review was published 14 years ago!

We need more up-to-date information!

And I am pleased to report that a recent paper provided exactly that.

This systematic review included published and unpublished RCTs. Quasi-RCTs, crossover trials, controlled before and after studies, interrupted time series (ITS) studies, and non-experimental studies were not included due to their potential high risk of bias.

Thirty-three trials involving 7175 patients with ARTIs were included. Their methodological quality was restricted as randomisation was not well documented; 73% of the trials included were not blinded; where ITT analysis were performed, loss to follow-up data were counted as no effect; and most trials were published without a protocol available.

Findings suggested limited but consistent evidence that A. Paniculata improved cough and sore throat when compared with placebo. A. Paniculata (alone or plus usual care) had a statistically significant effect in improving overall symptoms of ARTIs when compared to placebo, usual care, and other herbal therapies. A. Paniculata in pillule tended to be more effective in improving overall symptoms over A. Paniculata in tablet. Evidence also suggested that A. Paniculata (alone or plus usual care) shortens the duration of cough, sore throat and sick leave/time to resolution when compared versus usual care. Reduction in antibiotic usage was seldom evaluated in the included trials.

The authors concluded that A. Paniculata appears beneficial and safe for relieving ARTI symptoms and shortening time to symptom resolution. However, these findings should be interpreted cautiously owing to poor study quality and heterogeneity. Well-designed trials evaluating the effectiveness and potential to reduce antibiotic use of A. Paniculata are warranted.

In case you wonder about conflicts of interest: there were none with my 2004 paper, and the authors of the new review state that this paper presents independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Primary Care Research (NIHR SPCR). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR, the NHS or the Department of Health.

Yes, the RCTs are not all of top quality.

And yes, the effect size is not huge.

But maybe – just maybe – we do have here an alternative therapy that does help against a condition for which conventional drugs are fairly useless!?!

9 Responses to An effective herbal treatment for upper respiratory infections

  • Why do you consider this to be alternate therapy? Aren’t many modern medicines derived from substances first found somewhere in nature and then refined scientifically?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmacognosy

    • it is unquestionably a herbal treatment. drugs derived from herbs are not herbal treatments, as they do not contain all the ingredients of a plant but one isolated and often modified ingredient, e. .g. Aspirin.

      • Yes, but if a herbal preparation works in terms of plausibility and RCT confirmed efficacy and is safe is that not just medicine? In my mind I equate alternative medicine with quackery.

        • ONE REASON WHY THE TERM ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE’ IS NONSENSICAL – even though i use it a lot..
          some herbal medicines do work and should be – but often are not – part of conventional medicine.

  • One of the last collaborations of George Lewith, it seems. Good one, I think, it seems there might be something to it. Let’s keep fingers crossed, the quest is on.

  • Herbal cures for illness are common here in Thailand. Very common, in fact. Especially outside the cities.

    We shouldn’t forget the alternative therapy of food, of course. I met two people a few days ago who had a relation who had got rid of their Type 2 Diabetes by changing to a strict plant-based and fruit-based diet. No meat. No dairy. No factory food. The drugs didn’t work for them, so they took action into their own hands with good effect.

    • ” rid of their Type 2 Diabetes by changing to a strict plant-based and fruit-based diet”
      not unusual at all.
      almost by definition, type 2 diabetes responds to strict diet [not necessarily plant-based].

  • I was not really having a problem breathing at first. My throat was burning; I thought I had strep throat. I had pain in my neck, and there was swelling around my collar bone. The first doctor I went to said he did not know why there was swelling.

  • Can cigarette smoking cause upper respiration tract infection if yes how is it treated using herbal medicine

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