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The common cold is nothing to sneeze at: New research suggests having that snuffly, sneezy feeling costs the Canadian economy roughly $6-billion a year.

The study, published in today's edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggests that the cold is a bigger economic burden than far more serious medical conditions such as asthma, emphysema or heart failure.

"From a bottle of cough syrup to missed time at work and school, the price tag of catching a cold really adds up," said Mark Fendrick, co-director of the consortium for health outcomes at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study.

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When Dr. Fendrick tallied the annual bill for the United States, it came out to almost $40-billion (currency U.S. unless noted), including $17-billion in direct and $22.5-billion in indirect costs. Proportionally, for Canada, that works out to a price tag of $6-billion (Canadian). The researchers said there was no reason to think their findings would not apply to the population north of the border.

Dr. Fendrick and his team estimated that there are about 500 million colds each year in the United States -- almost 1.5 per person. In fact, in polling conducted as part of the research, the study found that 72 per cent of respondents reported having a cold within the last year, with an average of 2.5 episodes each. The other 28 per cent of those surveyed had not had a cold in the past year.

The cold, known formally as a viral respiratory tract infection, is the most commonly occurring illness in humans, hence its moniker as the "common" cold.

Dr. Fendrick said he was surprised by how often members of the public turn to the health-care system to cure the minor malady, even though rest and chicken soup will generally do the trick.

The study found that when the sniffles strike, most people trudge to the local pharmacy for a panoply of lozenges, decongestants and tissues, and often add to that a visit to the doctor's office.

American cold sufferers spend $2.9-billion on over-the-counter drugs and another $400-million on prescription medicines for symptomatic relief.

The Michigan team also calculated that there are an estimated 41 million antibiotic prescriptions for cold sufferers annually, even though antibiotics are of no use for treating the viral illness. These drugs cost an additional $1.1-billion, without mentioning that they are fuelling an epidemic of antibiotic resistance.

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The doctors' visits, again of dubious value in most cases, also carried a hefty price tag.

"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," Dr. Fendrick said. Another $4.8-billion was spent treating individuals who had complications due to a cold, such as sinusitis and otitis media, an ear infection.

Yet, the biggest economic cost from colds in the United States came from all the missed work days.

Researchers found that 189 million school days were missed by children due to colds. As a result, parents missed 126 million work days in order to stay home to care for their children.

Those stay-at-home days cost U.S. employers an estimated $14.5-billion annually.

In addition to days missed for caregiving, the research found that employees missed an additional 70 million workdays to care for themselves.

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Dr. Fendrick noted that most people tend to work with a cold -- in fact, they take one day off for every 4.4 colds they suffer -- but that time off still adds up to another $8-billion.

The researchers said the economic analysis should lead people to realize colds are benign, and that more effort should be put into the search for the cure for the common cold.

"Because there is no cure for the common cold, it gets far less attention than less-common conditions," Dr. Fendrick said.

"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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