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Common colds: Can Umckaloabo or Kaloba relieve the symptoms of acute respiratory tract infections?

Last Update: April 23, 2014; Next update: 2017.

There is weak evidence that an extract from the root of the plant Pelargonium sidoides could shorten the length of respiratory tract infections and relieve symptoms. But these extracts can have side effects like stomach and bowel problems.

Respiratory tract infections such as colds or acute bronchitis cause a number of different symptoms, including a stuffy or runny nose, cough, and sometimes headache and mild fever. They are usually caused by viruses, which cannot be directly fought with treatment. But simple respiratory tract infections nearly always go away on their own within about two weeks, and often start to get better after just a few days.

Herbal products containing an extract from the root of the plant Pelargonium sidoides are commonly used to relieve symptoms of respiratory tract infections. In Germany these products are marketed using the trade names Umckaloabo and Kaloba, and are available without a prescription. But they should not be given to children under the age of six years without consulting a doctor.

Umckaloabo and Kaloba contain an extract from the root of the South African geranium. The Latin name of this plant is Pelargonium sidoides. The active herbal ingredient is available in the form of drops and tablets. It is thought to strengthen the immune system and also to loosen mucus and relieve coughs. This extract is also believed to make it more difficult for viruses and bacteria to settle on the mucous membranes lining the airways. Only good-quality studies that involve enough participants can help determine whether these products actually have a benefit.

Analysis of studies on the effectiveness of Umckaloabo and Kaloba

Researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration – an international research network – looked for studies that could be used to find out how effective Umckaloabo and Kaloba are in treating respiratory tract infections, and how often they cause side effects. The researchers from Freiburg (Germany) found ten randomized controlled trials testing the effectiveness of these products in different respiratory tract infections: acute bronchitis, acute sinusitis, and colds. Some studies tested the active ingredient in the form of tablets, while others tested it in the form of drops.

The studies that have been done so far suggest that drops containing Umckaloabo and Kaloba are effective in the treatment of acute bronchitis. Studies with adult participants showed the following:

  • Without taking Pelargonium drops, about 96 out of 100 people still had symptoms after seven days.
  • After taking Pelargonium drops, about 63 out of 100 people still had symptoms after seven days.

These drops were also effective in children, but the effect was weaker.

This effect was only found for the drops. The tablets were no more effective than a placebo in these studies.

Pelargonium root extracts also seemed to speed up recovery from colds and acute sinusitis, but the researchers noted that these results should be interpreted with particular caution because there was far less data available on these illnesses.

Side effects and safety

The most common side effects of these herbal products were gastrointestinal problems (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heartburn) and – in individual cases – skin reactions (itching, hives). About 13 out of 100 people who took a placebo had side effects, compared with 18 out of 100 who used Umckaloabo or Kaloba.

The German Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) advises people who are taking Pelargonium root extracts such as Umckaloabo or Kaloba to stop using the drug, and consult a doctor, if they notice symptoms of liver problems. These include yellowing of the skin or eyes, dark urine, severe pain in the upper belly, and loss of appetite. It is also worth noting that the drops sometimes contain alcohol. Up until June 2012, BfArM received reports of 30 cases in which the use of these products was associated with hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). But it is not ultimately clear whether these cases of hepatitis were caused by the Pelargonium root extract.

Sources

  • Timmer A, Günther J, Motschall E, Rücker G, Antes G, Kern WV. Pelargonium sidoides extract for treating acute respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Sys Rev 2013; (10): CD006323. [PubMed: 24146345]
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

© IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)

IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)

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