Approximately 1 billion cases of the common cold occur annually in the United States, according to population research estimates. Each year, between 5% and 20% of patients will be diagnosed with influenza. Cold and flu season—which typically peaks between December and February when high levels of viruses circulate—is often associated with increased patient traffic for primary care offices.
Colds may be common, but viral infections can have serious implications: on average 200,000 Americans are hospitalized annually due to influenza, and flu-related deaths in the United States have been estimated to range from 3,000 to 49,000 over the past 30 years.
Cold and flu are also associated with significant burdens for patients and physicians. Approximately 28% of all annual over-the-counter medication expenditures are for cold and flu treatments. Viruses are easily spread and many patients experience multiple colds per year, which may result in frequent office visits. Symptoms can linger for up to 2 to 3 weeks, translating into lost work time.
Seasonal flu outbreaks result in an average of $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalization and outpatient visits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That total does not include indirect costs associated with lost productivity and worker absenteeism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employee absences on average are up an estimated 32% during the winter flu season compared with the rest of the year.
Primary care physicians play a key role in patient education, because patients may not know how to protect themselves and their families during cold and flu season, or may misunderstand the role of vaccinations and medications. By teaching patients how to identify influenza versus the common cold, which over-the-counter medications are appropriate, and when vaccination is recommended, primary care physicians can ease the burden of cold and flu season for their patients and staff.