Public Release:  The common cold coughs up $40 billion annual price tag

U-M researchers find total economic impact of cold virus to be more expensive than asthma, heart failure

University of Michigan Health System

Nearly 400 million missed work and school days occur each year at a cost of $20 billion

ANN ARBOR, MI - Chances are you or someone you know is battling with a nasty cold right now. The cold bug is definitely biting its way into work places and schools all across the country, forcing millions of people to stay home.

Catching a cold isn't cheap. A new study by the University of Michigan Health System published in the February 24th edition of Archives of Internal Medicine reports that the cost to the U.S. economy is $40 billion a year - substantially more than other conditions such as asthma, heart failure and emphysema.

"From a bottle of cough syrup to missed time at work and school, the price tag of catching a cold really adds up," says A. Mark Fendrick, M.D., lead author on the paper and co-director of the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, Cost Effectiveness Studies (CHOICES) at UMHS. "Since there is no cure for the common cold, it does not receive a lot of attention when compared to less common conditions. We wanted to calculate the total economic impact that the cold has on our economy."

The U-M researchers conducted a nationwide telephone survey of more than four-thousand U.S. households to find out the number of self-reported cases of the common cold, as well as specific ways respondents treated their illness. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported suffering from a cold within the last year, with an average of 2.5 episodes.

"A cold is the most commonly occurring illness in humans, so it was no surprise that there are approximately 500 million colds each year in the U.S.," says Fendrick. "What was a surprise is how often the public uses the health care system to treat a cold."

The study measured doctor's bills, over-the-counter medication, and prescription drugs. It also recorded missed school and work days, a cost that is generally overlooked, added Fendrick.

"For some, catching a cold may lead to a trip to the drug store to stock up on throat lozenges and nasal decongestants, and for others a brief doctor's visit," says Fendrick. "The public doesn't usually consider the costs associated with missing a day of work due to illness or having to stay home to take care of a sick child. Not surprisingly, lost work drives most of the cost."

The study found that Americans spend $2.9 billion on over-the-counter drugs and another $400 million on prescription medicines for symptomatic relief. Additionally, more than $1.1 billion are spent annually on the estimated 41 million antibiotic prescriptions for cold sufferers, even though antibiotics have no effect on a viral illness.

"We found that the common cold leads to more than 100 million physician visits annually at a conservative cost estimate of $7.7 billion per year," Fendrick says. "More than one third of patients who saw a doctor received an antibiotic prescription. While these unnecessary costs are problematic, what is more concerning is how these treatment patterns contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance, a significant public health concern."

The study reports that an estimated 189 million school days (an average of nearly 1 day per episode) are missed annually due to a cold. As a result, parents missed 126 million workdays in order to stay home to care for their child. When added to the workdays missed by employees suffering from a cold, the total economic impact of cold-related work loss exceeds $20 billion.

"Because there is no cure for the common cold it gets far less attention than many less common conditions," Fendrick says. "An intervention that would effectively prevent or treat the cold would have a huge clinical and economic impact, far greater than for chronic diseases that we hear about on a regular basis."

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