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Drink Liquids, Read This

March 03, 2003

Scientists who explore unusual subjects and like to throw around really big words have just reported a new study on the incidence and economic effects of the non-influenza viral respiratory tract infection.

In common words, the very common cold, that unpleasant combination of coughing, sneezing and strangely simultaneous stuffy and runny nose that gets, you know, tuffed up wid stuff. Dese doctors say common codez in dah hed happen at least 500 million times every year in this country and take a shocking invisible toll. They cost society an uncommon $40 billion, including $22.5 billion for 20 million lost workdays, plus an estimated 189 million missed school days. Now, that's a lot of in-boxes and homework to catch up on.

These colossal numbers include 110 million trips to doctors, 23.2 million phone calls to physicians and 6 million emergency room visits. Add to that, say, more than $4 billion for self-prescribed over-the-counter medications, which address the annoying symptoms for only a few hours, plus antibiotic prescriptions, most of which are medically useless because the common cold is caused by a virus, not a bacterium. Prescriptions are, however, easy to write and show that the doctor is responding. And they don't hurt the drugstore's bottom line either.

These cost estimates do not even hint at the economic toll of lost productivity by dutiful Typhoid Marys who go to work anyway and share their virus with colleagues. Nor the colds claimed by faking workers.

It's stunning, now that we have actual figures, to think that the most common illness in all humanity has attracted such uncommonly little research and curative attention. We invest fortunes to study, combat and cure esoteric diseases that afflict a fraction of the victims of colds, which strike nearly every person in the United States on average 2.5 times every year for at least seven days each time. Throw in at least 2.5 colds a year for the billions on this planet without windows and doctors and that's sufficient sneezes to keep the globe spinning a long while.

The study's leader, Dr. A. Mark Fendrick of the University of Michigan, says colds have been shrugged off as self-healing. Fendrick, who hasn't had a cold in nearly three weeks, has written that in economic and human terms, colds take a social and dollar toll far greater than migraines, hypertension, asthma and congestive heart failure.

There are reportedly five research studies underway for cold remedies. But none were available in time for dis one ride here now in da nose. Ponder the implications of genuine cold prevention or cure. Parental money and worry saved. The tossing, turning and coughing avoided. The moans unmoaned. The noses unreddened. The mountains of wet tissues undiscarded. Now, dat feels bedder awready.

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