Using over-the-counter drugs to treat upper respiratory infections may save $4.75 billion annually

October 26, 2004

Using nonprescription, or over-the-counter (OTC), medications to treat common upper respiratory infections could save $4.75 billion a year, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University.

The study, which was sponsored by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and will be presented on Oct. 28 at a meeting of the World Self-Medication Industry in Beijing, demonstrates that the majority of savings from taking OTC medications stems from improving work productivity and reducing unnecessary physician visits.

The study, led by Martin Lipsky, M.D., professor of family medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford, compared the results of using OTC medications to treat upper respiratory infections with those with non-treatment.

Lipsky and colleagues found an average cost savings of $9 per episode among adults using OTCs to treat their symptoms. With an average of three upper respiratory infection episodes per year among Americans age 18 to 65, this translates into potential annual savings of $4.75 billion.

"Many factors involved in the treatment of common upper respiratory infections contribute to a major economic burden. This study suggests that when adults use OTC medications to treat their symptoms, not only is there a symptom benefit, but there also appears to be a substantial cost savings to the healthcare system and the economy alike," Lipsky said.

"It's important for people to understand the signs and symptoms of these common conditions and to know that many nonprescription products are available to treat symptoms at a fairly low cost," Lipsky said. The common cold is a leading cause of missed workdays and decreased productivity, resulting in an average loss of 8.7 work hours per cold episode. The economic impact of this lost productivity is estimated at $25 billion, with $16.6 billion attributed to on-the-job productivity loss.

"Each year, especially during cold season, the economy takes a big hit from missed time from work and loss of on-the-job productivity," said study economist Teresa Waters, associate director for research, Center for Health Services Research, and associate professor, department of preventative medicine, University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

"By alleviating symptoms, OTCs keep people more productive and reduce physician visits, without compromising health outcomes. This may be the first study to clearly demonstrate these benefits from the use of nonprescription medications," Waters said.

About the Study
The study compared using OTC medications to treat the symptoms of upper respiratory infections with non-treatment of symptoms. Researchers used a decision analytic model which incorporated a series of key factors related to the treatment of common upper respiratory infections, including OTC medicine use and side effects, impact on work productivity, physician care by phone and in office, emergency department care, antibiotic use and side effects, hospital admission for complications of upper respiratory infection and hospital admission for complications of antibiotic use. Under baseline assumptions, OTC use was less expensive than non-treatment: $184 per upper respiratory infection episode (OTC use) compared to $193 per episode (non-treatment).

About Upper Respiratory Infections
Upper respiratory infections include several conditions such as the common cold and sore throat. Each year, Americans suffer from about one billion colds and the average adult suffers from two to four colds per year. These colds result in approximately 15 million lost workdays each year in the United States. There can be many different symptoms for upper respiratory infections, which may be caused by a variety of factors including congestion, cough, fever, and nasal obstruction. Upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold, coughs and the flu, are often caused by viruses, whose symptoms can be treated with OTC medications.

Northwestern University

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