DEAR DR. DONOHUE: When can I expect to catch my annual cold? Midwinter? How long is a person with a cold infectious to others? I want to be responsible about not spreading colds, but I'm not sure my boss is happy with me taking time off for having one. It sounds like a wimpy excuse. How do I tell cold symptoms from more serious things, like the flu? - R.D.
ANSWER: Colds aren't such wimpy things. They cost billions of dollars in lost work time and in over-the-counter medicines. Your boss might be more amenable to allowing workers to take time off with a cold if he or she realized that one cold patient can infect many, many workers.
Colds have two peaks, one in the fall and another in early spring. However, you can catch one at any time of the year, including summer.
People are great spreaders of the cold virus on day three or four of the cold. That's when virus production is at its highest. They can, however, spread the virus from as early as one day before cold symptoms appear to as long as two to three weeks after the infection.
The cold viruses are spread mostly from the hands and fingers of an infected person to the hands and fingers of the noninfected. When the noninfected touch the nose or the eye with a virus-coated finger, the virus has found a new home. Coughing and sneezing also spread the virus, but not as readily as hand transmission. Cold viruses can live on inanimate objects for hours to days, and there is a theoretical possibility of catching a cold from such objects. This is not one of the main routes of spread.
The symptoms of a cold are easily recognized - scratchy throat, plugged nose, runny nose, a low-grade temperature, sneezing and sometimes a cough. Flu symptoms make a person so sick that bed rest is desired and desirable.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Is there any truth to what I have heard about chocolate? It has so many health benefits that it's as nutritious as a plate of vegetables or fruit. I love it and could eat it all day long. This is the first time I have ever heard that something that tastes good is also good for you. It is so, isn't it? - R.D.
ANSWER: Dark chocolate does have many health benefits. It contains flavonoids. Flavonoids dilate arteries and increase the flow of blood to the heart and brain. They raise the level of good cholesterol. They have an effect similar to that of aspirin's in preventing unwanted blood clots within blood vessels. They also have antioxidants, materials that nullify the actions of oxidants. Oxidants are the byproducts of cells that cause organs and tissues to rust, so to speak.
But let's not get carried away. Chocolate is no rival for vegetables and fruits as a healthful food. A few ounces a day should be the limit. Three and a half ounces of expensive dark chocolate has 200 calories. Chocolate can contribute to weight gain.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I saw on TV the president demonstrating how to cough. He coughed into the sleeve of his jacket. Does this really stop the spread of the flu virus?
It strikes me as bizarre. - M.D.
ANSWER: Coughing into the crook of a covered elbow is a good way to stop the spread of respiratory viruses like the flu.
If you carry a supply of tissues, covering your mouth and nose with one is an equally good way of stopping transmission. The tissue can be disposed of in a wastebasket or some other container.
I thought the president's demonstration was excellent, worthy of a standing ovation.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from www.rbmamall.com.
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