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Economic impact of cold virus to be more expensive than asthma, heart failure

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

Catching a cold isn't cheap says a new study by the U-M Health System (UMHS), published in the Feb. 24 edition of Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers report 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 Dr. A. Mark Fendrick, 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."

Researchers conducted a nationwide telephone survey of more than 4,000 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 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. More than one-third of patients who saw a doctor received an antibiotic prescription, which Fendrick says not only contributes to unnecessary costs, but also has implications for antibiotic resistance from overuse of such drugs.

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, cold sufferers spend $1.1 billion annually on an estimated 41 million antibiotic prescriptions, even though the drugs have no effect on a viral illness.

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

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