Cost of the Common Cold: $40 Billion

Lost Work, Doctor Visits, Remedies -- It All Adds Up

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 24, 2003 -- The cost of the common cold isn't cheap. Across the country, millions of people stay at home, popping pills, sucking lozenges, squirting miracle cures up their noses, as they wage this all-too-familiar war against the unbeatable virus.

In fact, this "war" costs the U.S. economy roughly $40 billion a year -- substantially more than other conditions like 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 researcher A. Mark Fendrick, MD, with the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, and Cost Effectiveness Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

His study appears in this week's Archives of Internal Medicine.

In it, he reports the results from a nationwide telephone survey of more than 4,000 U.S. households. Nearly 75% 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."

Those surveyed reported their doctors' bills, over-the-counter medication costs, and costs of prescription drugs. They also reported days when work and school were missed, a cost that is generally overlooked, says Fendrick.

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

Fendrick found that Americans spend $2.9 billion on over-the-counter drugs and another $400 million on prescription medicines for symptom relief. Also, 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 a 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 are missed annually because of a cold. Also, 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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SOURCES: Archives of Internal Medicine, Feb. 24, 2003. News release, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
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