Certain herbal supplements show promise for treating children’s colds, skin allergies and sleep problems, according to a new research review.
On the other hand, the study found, some of the most popular botanical products, including echinacea, garlic and cranberry supplements, do not have the evidence to back them up.
But even with herbs that have some supporting evidence, parents should be careful about giving the products to their children, cautioned Dr. Gail Mahady, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the study’s lead author.
“They need to recognize that treatment of any disease with an herbal medicine is really drug therapy, not dietary supplementation,” she told AMN Health.
Among the herbs that Mahady and her co-investigators found promising was Andrographis paniculata, a plant long used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for treating the common cold, flu and other infections. In one clinical trial, children given the herb daily for three months had roughly half as many colds during the third month as children given a placebo.
Other herbs with at least some research evidence to support them included evening primrose oil, valerian root and ivy leaf, according to findings published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
Many herbal products have not been well studied, particularly for use among children. But the new review shows there are botanicals on the market that may well aid in childhood illness, according to Mahady.
Those are the products that researchers should be “actively investigating,” she said.
Evening primrose oil is derived from an American wildflower and is rich in essential fatty acids. Three clinical trials have looked at the botanical’s effectiveness for children’s atopic eczema, an allergic condition that causes patches of skin to become inflamed, dry and extremely itchy. Overall, according to Mahady and her colleagues, the research suggests evening primrose oil may help with the condition.
Valerian is an herbal sedative, and only one clinical trial has assessed the effects of the extract in children, according to the review. But that small study found that the herb improved sleep patterns among boys with learning deficits and hyperactivity.
Extracts of ivy leaf are used to treat upper respiratory problems, and Mahady and her colleagues found some evidence that the herb may help improve breathing difficulties in children with asthma or chronic bronchitis.
In contrast, Mahady said, the evidence for the popular cold fighter echinacea is mixed, and cranberry juice and supplements have not been proven to help prevent or treat children’s urinary tract infections. Similarly, there’s no evidence that garlic can improve cholesterol levels among children with a strong family history of High cholesterol.
Like drugs, herbal products come with safety concerns, Mahady pointed out. Echinacea, for example, can trigger allergic reactions in children who already have allergies. Mahady said that, in general, parents of children with asthma or other allergies should be particularly careful about giving them herbal supplements, as plants are a common allergy trigger.
Getting the advice of a doctor, pharmacist or other health professional before using an herb, Mahady said, “will only be beneficial to the child.”
SOURCE: Journal of Pediatrics, March 2005.
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Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD