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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 00:15 GMT
Herbal treatment for hayfever
An extract of butterbur could relieve symptoms
A herbal extract is as effective as conventional medicines for treating hayfever, research has suggested.

A team of Swiss researchers found that not only is the extract, butterbur, as effective as antihistamines for treating hayfever, it does not have the sedative effects often associated with the drugs.

Presumably it contains an active biochemical agent, otherwise it would not work - and therefore it is possible that this might react with other medications

Mr John de Carpentier
The researchers gave 125 hayfever patients either butterbur extract tablets or a commonly-used non-sedating antihistamine called cetirizine.

After two weeks, the treatments had achieved similar effects.

However, even though cetirizine is considered a non-sedating medicine, it still produced more symptoms of drowsiness than the herbal remedy.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the researchers said: "We believe butterbur should be considered for treating hayfever, particularly in cases where the sedative effects of antihistamines need to be avoided."

Caution urged

Mr John de Carpentier, ear, nose and throat consultant at the Royal Preston Hospital, told BBC News Online that new drugs for hayfever would be useful as some patients did not fare well with those that are currently available.

However, he said he could not remember the last time a patient had been unable to take cetirizine because of its sedative effect.

Also known as "bog rhubarb"
Unpleasant smell
In the past, used to treat plague and fever, coughs, asthma and skin wounds
Currently used to treat migraines
Believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties
Contains alkaloids believed to be toxic to the liver
These are removed in butterbur products
"I would be perfectly happy for people to experiment with herbal remedies if they are prepared to take the risk themselves.

"But until studies are done on the safety profile of this extract I would treat it with a degree of caution.

"Presumably it contains an active biochemical agent, otherwise it would not work - and therefore it is possible that this might react with other medications."

Mr de Carpentier said the safety of antihistamines was well established.

He said that herbal remedies were not always licensed as medications, which meant they had not necessarily undergone rigorous safety checks.

Mr de Carpentier is working on an immunotherapy treatment which involves de-sensitising sufferers to hay fever by injecting them with the grass pollen which causes their allergy.

The plant

Butterbur is a perennial shrub, found throughout Europe as well as parts of Asia and North America, that has been used medicinally for centuries.

During the Middle Ages it was used to treat plague and fever.

In the 17th century its use was noted in treating cough, asthma, and skin wounds.

Currently, it is used in the treatment of migraines.

It has also been used successfully in preventing gastric ulcers, and in treating patients with irritable bladder and urinary tract spasms.

Extracts are prepared from the rhizomes, roots, and leaves.

The BBC's Tom Heap
"There are certain people for whom it would be quite dangerous"
Complimentary medicine expert Dr Nick Avery
"I think there will be a lot of public interest"
See also:

25 Oct 01 | England
Hayfever jab trials underway
09 Jul 99 | Medical notes
11 May 01 | Health
Bid for better allergy care
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