In my experience and observations acute illnesses often go through three general phases. These phases can overlap in symptoms quite a bit but keeping the three phases in mind may help you to understand how much longer the illness will last.
Phase 1 - Infection
In this phase there are generally little to no symptoms at all. In fact you may not even realize you are getting sick other than a slight tickle in your throat or nose or slightly lowered energy levels giving you some indication of the impending illness. This is where the virus or bacteria is most actively infecting cells and reproducing.
Phase 2 - Inflammation
The immune system has been activated. White blood cells and antibodies are multiplying rapidly to launch a counter-attack. Lymph glands may swell up and cytokines (immune cell messages) cause inflammation and pain. This is where the sinuses become painful or the throat hurts. Or as in the flu the body aches may occur. Depending on the type of infection fever and chills may occur as the body launches its full out assault.
Phase 3 - Waste Removal
Once the imminent threat has subsided the body works to remove any collateral damage including infected cells, nearby cells that have self-destructed to avoid infection, and eventually the excess white blood cells that are no longer needed. Waste removal symptoms are characterized by cough, runny nose and general mucus expectoration. The waste removal stage is often the longest of the three stages.
The damaged cells from the initial infection are more susceptible to secondary infection. Particularly if one does not rest and allow the body to fully recover. Vitamin and mineral depletion also affects recovery time, especially Vitamin A and zinc. So if you find yourself going back to the inflammation stage it is a sure sign of a secondary infection.
Watching for these three phases can help you to determine how well your immune system is responding. If you find that your symptoms appear to be stuck for long periods of time in any one phase then your immune response is lacking and you may need herbs, or other supplements to help.
Remedies for the Three Phases
If everyone you know is sick and you have been pretty stressed or have not been eating as well as you should it's a pretty good bet that you are already in the first phase of infection. This is the time to take Elderberry syrup or Elderflower in tea form. Elder is especially good for viral infections as it exposes the virus to the immune system. Echinacea is also appropriate at the first sign of illness. Take it often, maybe even every hour. Echinacea activates your white blood cells and the sooner the immune system responds the shorter the illness will be.
Once you are firmly in the inflammation stage be careful not to take any herbs or over-the-counter medications that will compromise the healing efforts of your body. While it may be tempting to take something to bring down a fever, remember that fever is doing you a favor by making your body an inhospitable host to viruses and bacteria. Herbs like yarrow can help open up the pores and allow a fever to be more productive. Once you break a sweat you know you are on your way to the waste removal phase.
Echinacea and other immune boosting herbs won't do you much good during the waste removal phase. Focus instead on herbs to keep the mucus thin and running like capsicum, thyme, and other aromatics. Mucilaginous herbs like marshmallow root can also speed healing to the damaged mucus membranes.
If secondary infections are your trouble then make sure you are focusing on nutrition and immune supportive herbs like astragalus in between illnesses. Also make sure you are allowing yourself the rest and fluids your body needs when you are sick. It takes a lot of energy to fight an infection so REST REST REST!
To Your Health!
Kathryn Doran-Fisher is a Traditional Naturopath, Certified GAPS Practitioner and owner of Elder & Sage.