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One-third of Canadians always have cold

As cold and flu season looms, new research from Queen's University suggests that having the sniffles has a more significant economic impact than anyone thought.

A new report the first of its kind done in Canada tracks U.S. data to estimate the cost of colds and flu on the economy. The researchers cite direct costs due to lost productivity as a result of colds and flu at $25 billion a year in the U.S. Taking into account both lost productivity and direct costs, including visits to the doctor and purchasing medicine, the researchers pegged the cost of colds and flu in the U.S. at $40 billion a year.

Although the researchers used many U.S. statistics in their report, the chief researcher said similar rates could be expected in Canada.

"Everybody gets colds," said Dr. Richard Birtwhistle, a professor and director of the Centre for Studies in Primary Care at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"We think it's just something that happens and get on with it without necessarily thinking about all the other impacts it can have because it's really common. But it is a minor ill that can have some major consequences for the workplace."

The researchers compiled and reviewed more than 80 published studies, research and clinical trials from more than 100 universities. Using data from a U.S. survey, the researchers found 83 per cent of the U.S. workforce goes to work when affected by the cold or flu, rather than calling in sick.

"Most workers feel an obligation to go to work even if they're sick," said Birtwhistle. "They don't want to seem like they're letting down the workplace or their colleagues."

However, going to work when ill can cost employers twice as much in productivity losses compared to staying home, the report found. Employees who are sick are less likely to be effective at their job and run the risk of spreading the illness to another co-worker, said Birtwhistle.

"Generally, populations in North America are somewhat similar," he said. "Obviously we have ethnic differences and that sort of thing, but in terms of risk of getting a cold, our seasons are somewhat the same."

In any given month, one-third of Canadian adults have a sore throat, cold or flu, the researchers found and two-thirds of Canadian adults experiencing the first signs of a cold or flu use some type of medication to treat the symptoms.

One-fifth of adults choose to ignore their symptoms, the report found.

Cough and cold medications are the second most commonly used medication in the country, with Canadians spending more than $300 million each year on over-the-counter cold and flu treatments, said Birtwhistle.

Although spending on medication generates economic activity, Birtwhistle, who is also a practicing family physician, said there is little evidence to prove they work. Any symptom relief is likely a result of the placebo effect, he said.

"Many people feel as if they feel better (with medication) but the evidence for that is marginal," he said. "It certainly helps to keep some pharmaceutical companies going, but you have to wonder how else you could spend that money."

The bottom line for employers looking to mitigate productivity losses is to focus on prevention, said Birtwhistle.

"Respiratory infections aren't going away anytime soon," he said.

Frequent handwashing, and isolation when experiencing cold and flu symptoms, are key in preventing the spread of illness, said Birtwhistle.

The study was funded by an independent educational grant from Afexa Life Sciences, which makes products such as ColdFX.

Read more at: Canada.com

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