Sometimes, A Cold is Just a Cold

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America, put down your pills and listen up! We are a nation drowning ourselves in high profile, high cost allergy medicines — and most of us don’t even have allergies!

That’s the word from Ohio State University’s Dr. Sheryl Szeinback, who studied 265 people who were taking prescription allergy medicine. She found that a 65 percent of those patients did not suffer from allergies, but rather from colds or other minor ailments like sinusitis and rhinitis.

Assuming that data translates to the rest of the population, it could mean as many as two-thirds of the tens of millions of Americans who take prescription allergy medication (costing up to $80 a month) could be overmedicating themselves — and still not getting relief from their symptoms.

What about the placebo effect? Might there be some benefit to taking these drugs even if they only make you think you're getting better? Sadly, probably not; a study last week called the entire placebo effect into question. So that little escape route is eliminated, unfortunately for doctors, who have been known to write prescriptions just to keep patients happy, and pharmaceutical companies.

Why, then, do so many Americans, who will spend $4.7 billion this year on allergy medicines, keep shelling out so much cash for something they don’t always need? One word: Marketing.

Americans love medicine. Doctors are quick to point out that patients themselves often demand allergy drugs by name. Americans are targets of an unprecedented barrage of expensive and ubiquitous advertising campaigns by drug companies, who tout their products to a miserably sniffling populace as the pharmaceutical road to freedom — their ads feature former allergy sufferers laughingly windsurfing their way across a telegenic field of wheat. Heaven knows that image is certainly tough to resist.

But maybe we should. Sure, we can take allergy medication and feel that we’re doing something, meanwhile suffering not only from continuing symptoms but also from a long list of unpleasant side effects. Or we can take the braver path: Toss aside those medications, confront our perpetually weepy eyes and snotty noses and figure out what’s actually causing our immune systems to flare up. Call it a national journey into the heart of phlegm. Or a declaration of independence. Whatever works for you.