A couple of weeks ago a journalist asked me if there was any evidence for natural remedies helping to reduce colds and similar infections suffered after plane journeys. In a beautiful example of the workings of Murphy and his Law, I told her there’s was nothing recently published, only to have just such a study land on my desk barely a week later.
In work that will interest pretty much anyone who travels by plane, especially those who are exposed to long-haul air travel, the researchers found that using Echinacea prior to, during and after long-haul flights reduced the amount of respiratory disease symptoms suffered by travellers.
The authors concluded that Echinacea treatment might have had a protective effect against the development of respiratory symptoms during the period of travel. 
The trial was restricted to people between the age of 18 and 65, who were in general good health. Those with respiratory disease or immune disorders were excluded from the trial. The participants flew from Australia to America, Europe, or Africa, on flights of between 15 and 25 hours, with stopovers of less than 12 hours, and then back to Australia within a maximum of 5 weeks. They were economy class passengers, so it wasn’t the luxury pillows and champagne that boosted their immune function.
The participants were divided into two groups, with one being given Echinacea for a period lasting from 14 days before flying to 14 days after returning. The other group was given a placebo supplement for the same period of time. The study was double-blind, meaning that neither the participants nor those giving them their supplement knew if it was the placebo or the real stuff. This is important, as it’s been found that if the person who hands you out your meds knows if they are real or not, they can subtly and unwittingly impart to you an inkling of your status.
Each person completed a survey 14 days before they went, giving details of their respiratory health, so that it would be clear if they were already a bit snuffly or were generally perky. Then they did the survey again when they got home, and once more 4 weeks after that, showing how many respiratory tract infections they had succumbed to in that period.
When the two groups filled in the initial survey before they flew, there were no appreciable differences between them in terms of general health and more particularly respiratory health. In the survey completed immediately after returning, there were more people suffering from respiratory symptoms in the placebo group than in the Echinacea group: 57% in the placebo group against 43% in the Echinacea group.
When the last survey results were compared, that difference between the Echinacea group and the placebo group remained – only 25% of the Echinacea group were suffering from respiratory illness symptoms, whereas 39% of the placebo group were in the grip of a lurgy.
There were no differences between the groups in terms of sleep disturbances or headaches and so on, so the Echinacea treatment didn’t cause any problems. Two people turned out to be allergic to Echinacea (allergic reactions to Echinacea tend to materialise as rashes and itching, which disappear once you stop taking Echinacea), so couldn’t continue to take it.
Overall, then, taking Echinacea preventatively enabled many travellers to enjoy their journey, holiday or business, and return, without the trouble caused by colds and coughs and their attendant symptoms. This is good news for those who have perforce to fly long haul, or whose previous experiences of long-distance flying have not encouraged them to anticipate a healthy outcome.
There are several reasons for the particular ease with which respiratory bugs grab their hapless victims during plane journeys. Firstly the quality of the air is inevitably slightly less than perfect, and any ill passenger stands a pretty good chance of passing their bug onto others without even the effort of leaving their seat. Secondly, the number of people you are exposed to in airports (before you even gain the plane itself) is usually great, and plenty of them will be people you have never bumped into before and therefore whose bugs your immune system has not had a chance to build up resistance too. Added to that the likelihood of sleep deprivation and stress, both frequently optional in-flight extras, and you have a perfect scenario for a bug to walk in with reduced immune resistance.
There is often debate about whether Echinacea is a valid remedy for prevention, and this research very neatly and practically shows that it is.
And as we all know, prevention is better than cure!
Tiralongo E et al. Echinacea supplementation in air travellers. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2012; 2012: 417267. doi: 10.1155/2012/417267