According to research published in Archives of Internal Medicine (2003 Feb 24;163(4):487-94), viral upper respiratory infections that are not influenza (in other words, colds) cost the US economy $39.5 billion each year. A nationwide telephone survey of US households (N = 4051) was conducted between November 3, 2000, and February 12, 2001 about frequency and treatment approach to viral upper respiratory infections. A little over 70% of the respondents reported having a cold in the past year. Respondents who reported having a cold averaged 2.5 colds annually. When these rates are extrapolated to the entire US population, approximately 500 million colds occur per year.

A little over half of the cost of these upper respiratory infections, $22.5 billion, is from missed work. According to the researchers, much of the rest of the cost comes from inappropriate medical care, mainly doctors’ visits and antibiotic prescriptions. Antibiotics are of no use for viral infections.

According to one of the authors, Mark Fendrick, co-director of the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, Cost Effectiveness Studies (CHOICES) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, “Many Americans don’t realize that the average cold lasts greater than one week…A quarter will last up to two weeks. It’s not just a couple of days. And once they go to their doctor, patients often leave with a prescription for antibiotics, which are ineffective against viral infections such as colds.” Fendrick and his co-authors estimate that more than $1.1 billion is spent annually on 41 million antibiotic prescriptions for colds. Most of the 197 families responding to the survey knew that viruses cause colds, however more than half believed that antibiotics were needed to treat them.