Cold vs. Flu, Dodder

Dear Matt:

They’re already starting to advertise for old people to get flu shots this year. It’s starting to piss me off. I don’t get the flu in the winter, I have about five colds. Why do they have a vaccine for old people for flu, when many, many more people get colds every year? It makes more sense to eliminate colds. Why hasn’t anyone come up with a cold shot?

— Achooo, via email

A cold vaccine? Oh, poor baby. Crazy from the sniffles? Sneezing got you low down? Tickly throat made you swoon? Well, suck it up. No head-cold shot on the medical horizon in your lifetime. Researchers would say they have enough on their plates, what with all the conjuring of preventive vaccines for the serious and deadly things that takes up their days. At last count, there were nearly 250 different cold viruses flying around in our germy air. Tackling them one by one would be futile. The sweat-benefit ratio simply isn’t there. Every year in the U.S. about 36,000 people die from influenza. When was the last time you saw a headstone that read, “Here lies Walt, dispatched in his prime by what he’d insisted was the worst head cold anyone ever had”?

The flu virus appears in only three forms, A, B, and, um, oh yeah, C. Type A is the one that hits most people. One thing type A is good at is mutating — continually tweaking its internal structure a bit. This is why today’s vaccine is most effective on yesterday’s virus. As fast as they research, science guys are always a year behind. But any type-A vaccine is better than no type-A vaccine, so doctors still strongly recommend that certain populations get a shot every year. The true flu virus invades the whole respiratory system and hits it much harder than does the cold virus. It also causes a high fever and general fatigue. Healthy people can eventually shake it off, but old or compromised people might not be able to.

So, what about stomach flu, you ask. Well, you didn’t ask, but I’m going to answer it anyway. So, stomach flu. Is that just the regular type-A influenza virus with a bad sense of direction? In fact there’s no such thing as stomach flu, which won’t stop us from using it as an excuse to call in sick to work, though. What we call stomach flu physicians call gastroenteritis — a severely twitchy and irritated gut. Caused by bad bacteria from things like spoiled food or funky water.

Best way to avoid both cold and flu viruses? Wash your hands. Wash ’em like you’re OCD. Viruses can lurk on hard surfaces for several hours. And avoid sneezers and coughers. Good advice even after flu season, I’d think.

Dear Straight from the Hip:

This may be a strange question, but it must be asked on my part. Over the year I have noticed a strange plant disease. It is bright orange, so it’s hard to miss. It can grow on bushes and trees, killing its hosts in a matter of weeks. I have seen it on the way to Barona, coming home from Carlsbad, on Telegraph Canyon Road, 94 to Dulzura, and close to my home in Chula Vista. Since I have seen it first up north, it was a curious thing to see. What maybe I could do to stop the spread.

— Curious Spreading, Chula Vista

The creepy, bright-orange-colored spider web that spreads over bushes along our roads is called dodder. Like nature’s own Halloween decorations. It is a parasitic plant and dang hard to get rid of. It’s not likely that you’ll end up with the stuff around your house; it’s mostly an agricultural and wild-area pest. But if you have a good host plant and a seed wanders by, you might get dodderized.

From a distance, what we see is a thick mat of pale green, yellow, or orange stems covering the host. Up close we’d see bunches of small white flowers that produce three tiny but tough seeds each, from spring through fall. Thousands of them. We’d also notice that the dodder stem has wound around the stem and branches of the host plant and at intervals has sent suckers (haustoria) into the host’s vascular tissue. They’re sucking out the juicy juices.

So, what to do about it. If the dodder’s established, you have to cut down the host plant below the first haustoria attachment. The evil suckers left inside the host can regenerate a whole new dodder plant if you just rip off the stems of the old plant. Put the whole mess into plastic bags, seal them, and dump them. Professionals can light a controlled burn if the infestation is widespread. There are some biological and chemical controls too.

The sneaky thing that you might not notice as you’re chopping down your infested plants is that dodder seeds are hitching a ride on your shoes and clothes. So when you’re through dedodderizing your plants, strip off all your clothes and burn them before you leave the area so you don’t spread a trail of seeds behind you. And expect to have to do this year after year unless you replant nonhost plants. Dodder never sleeps.

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