Understanding the Life Cycle of a Cold or Flue

Colds and flu have a cycle of four distinct phases. Each phase can vary in its severity and duration. Different natural treatments are more appropriate at certain phases. Your immune system, nutrition and inappropriate or incorrect treatment can all influence the severity and duration of each phase.

By understanding the life cycle of colds and flu you will be able to treat them more effectively and reduce the likelihood of secondary infections such as bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis etc.

Stages of a cold infographic

This infographic shows the four stages of a cold or flu including symptoms and treatment options.

Stages of a Cold: In Depth

Stage 1: Inflamation

The first stage of a cold or flu is all about inflammation. Everything is hot and dry. Inflammation occurs as your immune system mounts an attack against the invading virus.

Fever occurs as your immune system elevates your body’s temperature to make it more uncomfortable for the virus (it also makes it more uncomfortable for you as well). Viruses prefer your normal body temperature and fever makes it more difficult for the virus to reproduce. On the other hand, the elevated temperature speeds up reactions in your body including the function of your immune system and immune cells. Interferon, a potent anti viral substance produced by your immune system is produced in larger amounts in response to fever.

This first stage of a cold is the most infectious stage. You also tend to feel pretty lousy as well and the single most effective treatment here is rest.

Taking medications to suppress symptoms at this stage will only end in disaster. By opposing what your immune system is trying to do you’ll find that stage 2 and 3 will be much more severe and you’ll be at a greater risk of developing sinus or chest infections.

Stage 1 Symptoms

  1. Fever
    • headache
    • muscle aches and pains
    • fatigue
  2. Dry, sore throat
  3. Dry, irritated cough
  4. Dry and swollen nasal passages
  5. Decreased appetite
  6. Increased thirst
  7. Sore, swollen glands
  8. Children and infants often become more grumpy, irritable or clingy. Stage 1 is often missed with children, many parents think their child is just being naughty and then they wake the next day with a runny nose or cough. Once you learn to recognise Stage 1 symptoms in your child you can start treatment much sooner.

Stage 1 Treatment

  • Rest is the most important and effective treatment. Small, frequent sips of warm filtered water with a tiny pinch of sea salt or chicken soup can be given. Don’t worry too much about food at this stage if you or your child don’t feel hungry. Chicken soup will provide all the nourishment your body needs.
  • Warm herbal teas can help you feel more comfortable and assist your immune system. The combination of Yarrow, Elderflower and Peppermint can be used with children and adults. Peppermint tea on its own can also be helpful. Sweeten with a little raw honey if desired.
  • Avoid sugar, fruit juice, soft drinks, cordial (including diet cordials) and sports drinks. Sugar will suppress your immune system.White flour products such as bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits are not much more than sugar in disguise
  • Avoid exercise, your body needs rest.
  • The tissue salt Ferrum Phos can be used in place of paracetamol for children and adults. You can also use Ferrum Phos homoeopathic in a 6C, 12C or 30C potency. Both can be given every 2 hours as required. Dissolve the tissue salt in warm water or use homoeopathic drops for infants and children.
  • Alternating the tissue salts Ferrum Phos and Kali Mur (potassium chloride) every 2 hours during phase 1 can shorten the duration of phase 2 and 3.
  • A combination of the immune tonic herbs Echinacea and Andrographis taken every 2 hours can shorten the entire duration of a cold and flu. Stage 1 is the most effective time to begin herbal immune support treatment.
  • Gargling liquid zinc and water can take the pain out of sore throats (I find it’s as effective as paracetamol or aspirin), other sore throat soothers include lemon juice, raw honey, ginger and liquorice root (use the dried root or a herbal extract added to your tea).
  • For dry coughs that are interfering with sleep, use a combination of the herbs Wild Cherry Bark and Marshmallow root. Also see: How to get rid of a dry cough

Stage 2: Mucous

At this stage of a cold you are always left wondering how such a small body part can produce so much mucous. The mucous at this stage is clear and runny, and there is usually lots of it.

This is the stage where it’s tempting to take a decongestant to dry everything up. Don’t. Taking a decongestant now will only prolong this stage and increase the likelihood of a more severe and longer lasting cold. Stage 2 should only last a few days, if it’s lasting longer than 3 days in yourself, your child or another family member you need to look at building up their immune system.

A runny nose usually starts when a cold is starting to get better. When the cold virus first infects the nose and sinuses, the nose starts making lots of clear mucous. This mucous helps wash the virus out of the nose and sinuses. After two or three days, as the body fights back, the mucous changes as you enter stage 3.

Stage 2 symptoms

  1. Lots of clear, runny mucous.
  2. Mucous may be thicker and take on a white colour after sleep.
  3. Children often have a very ‘wet’ sounding cough after sleep despite their chest being clear when someone listens to it. This cough is caused by a runny nose dripping backwards.
  4. Children can also vomit up excess mucous that they swallow or you might notice mucous in their nappies. This is nothing to be concerned about, their stomach acid will take care of any virus lurking in the mucous.
  5. Sneezing
  6. Conjunctivitis

Stage 2 Treatment

  • Continue with your immune tonic herbs such as Echinacea and Andrographis. A combination of Echinacea and Ribwort is best for children.
  • If you’re prone to sinus infections, start the herbs Golden Seal and Ground Ivy along with immune tonic herbs. A herbalist can make you up a formula containing all of these herbs.
  • If you or your child are prone to bronchitis, you need to add Thyme to your herbal formula. Garlic tea for adults and garlic socks for small children can also help.
  • The herb Eyebright is effective for conjunctivitis when used internally and externally as an eyebath or wash.
  • Keep up with plenty of warm fluids like herbal teas.
  • Keep your child out of day-care and if you’ve returned to work, ensure that you’re in bed between 9.30-10pm. Your body heals during deep sleep that occurs between 11pm and 2am.
  • Homoeopathic Medicines for Stage 2 include:
    • Nat Mur 6x, 6c or 12c every 2 hours: lots of sneezing with profuse clear mucous and dry, cracked lips. Works well if you’re prone to cold sores.
    • Kali Mur 6x, 6c or 12c: mucous tends to white colour and tongue is coated white.
    • Allium Cepa 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Clear, profuse discharge from the nose corrodes and irritates the nose and upper lip.
    • Euphrasia 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Tears and watery eyes which burn and irritate. Conjunctivitis.

Stage 3: Congestion

If you’ve rested and treated stages 1 and 2 effectively, stage 3 may be so mild that you seem to bypass it altogether. On the other hand, if you’ve taken lots of medications including decongestants, this is the stage where sinus, ear or other infections will develop. If you’re prone to sinus infections, start treatment in phase 1 or 2 to prevent them occurring.

During Stage 3 mucous becomes thick and changes colour from the clear to white of stage 2 to yellow or green. As the bacteria that usually live in the nose grow back, they change the mucus to a greenish colour. This is normal. It doesn’t mean you or your child has an infection that needs to be treated with medicines like antibiotics.

Stage 3 Symptoms

  1. Thick yellowish coloured mucous that may change to green, especially in the morning or after a sleep.
  2. Sinus pain and headache.
  3. Post nasal drip (thick mucous dripping down the back of your throat).
  4. A wet sounding cough from mucous dripping down the back or your throat. Also see: How to get rid of a wet cough.
  5. Throat may be sore when you wake in the morning as the thick mucous congestion forces you to breathe through your mouth.
  6. Constant nose blowing can irritate the membranes in your nose and mucous may be tinged with blood.

Stage 3 Treatment

  • Continue immune tonic herbs and other herbs as appropriate (golden seal and ground ivy for sinus or ear infections, thyme and garlic for bronchitis).
  • Garlic helps to break mucous down making it easier to cough up or blow out. Raw garlic is best but garlic tablets and capsules can also be effective.
  • Homoeopathic medicines for Stage 3 include:
    • Pulsatilla 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Ideal remedy for baby’s and children. Mucous continually changing colour from white to clear to green and back again. Nose is blocked and congested at night and indoors becoming runny when outside in open air. Often little or no thirst.
    • Mercurious 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Lots of saliva with bad taste in mouth. Thin discharge from nose, sneezing and watering eyes. Sore throat which stings and pricks, worse at night and on waking in the morning. Often with night sweats.
    • Kali Sulph 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Yellow discharge and desire for fresh air.
    • Calc Sulph 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Yellow discharge changing to a yellow-green, can be tinged with blood. Mucous is slimy.
    • Kali Bich 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Thick yellow or yellow-green mucous which is stringy, rope, tough and jelly like forming crusts in the nose.
    • Hepar Sulph 6c or 12c every 2-4 hours: Takes cold on the slightest exposure to cold air. Nose becomes blocked up when outside in fresh air. Often has a sore throat like a sensation of a splinter stuck in the throat. Loose, barking cough usually worse at night time.

Stage 4: Convalescence and Recovery

Convalescence and recovery while not a true stage of colds and flu is a valuable art that we have lost as a society.

Your body literally fights a war each time you have a cold and allowing some time at the end of the infection for your body to clean up the mess and repair the damage can mean the difference between another cold next month or next year.

Convalescence is very simple, all it involves is a few extra days of ‘quiet time’ (don’t schedule in any extra curricular activities), early nights and nutritious foods. You may resume exercise but don’t overdo it, intense exercise has a temporary suppressant effect on your immune system. A long walk is far better at this stage than an intense exercise session at the gym or a run.

Although children appear to bounce back quickly from colds, having an extra day or two once they’re well with limited activities, early nights and extra nutritious food will ensure their immune system is fully recovered.

Many people find that it can take a few weeks after a cold before their energy and sense of wellbeing returns to normal. A few days following a convalescent program will ensure that you make a 100% recovery ASAP.


  • Drink lots of warm fluids including herbal teas
  • Make sure you’re in bed between 9.30 and 10pm
  • Have a nap during the day if you need to
  • Keep yourself warm – wear a singlet or vest and a scarf if going outside
  • Eat lots or warm slow cooked foods, soups, stews and casseroles are ideal
  • Eat lots of nutrition dense foods such as egg yolks, liver and chicken soup
  • Take a probiotic supplement (acidophilus and bifidus) or use home made yoghurt or Kefir to replenish good bacteria in your digestive tract (remember over 60% of your immune cells are located in your digestive tract).
  • Top up your vitamin A stores with cod liver oil
  • Take a liquid zinc supplement for a few weeks
  • Engage in gentle exercise such as yoga and walking


    • Drink cold water
    • Consume sugar, fruit juice, cordial, soft drinks or sports drinks
    • Drink high caffeine containing drinks such as tea and coffee
    • Engage in high impact or intense sports or exercise

including running, cycling, boxing, Bikram and Ashtanga yoga

  • Skip meals
  • Eat processed breakfast cereals (pretty much all the breakfast cereals in the supermarket including so called health food cereals)
  • Eat excessive raw foods including fruit or salad

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