General probiotic use in the U.S. could save health care payers and the economy an estimated $1.4 billion in medical bills and lost productivity due to acute respiratory tract infections (RTIs—influenza-like illnesses with symptoms ranging from mild cold to the flu). That's the finding of astudypublished inFrontiers in Pharmacology,conducted jointly by researchers in the U.S., France, the Netherlands and Denmark.

A press release fromUC Davis Healthannouncing the findings notes that RTI episodes can result in a high number of doctor visits and pose a heavy burden on society and the health care system. “Although flu-like illnesses usually resolve on their own after one or two weeks, there is great benefit in reducing [influenza-like illness] incidence and duration,” said Irene Lenoir-Wijnkoop, first author on the study and senior scientist in public health nutrition at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in the release. “Less sickness means reduced suffering and significant cost savings from health care expenses and sick absences.”

The goal of the study, Daniel Tancredi, co-author on the study, an associate professor at theDepartment of Pediatrics and a researcher at the Center for Healthcare Policy and Researchat UC Davis, explained, was to assess how much the use of probiotics in the management of common acute RTIs could contribute to savings in healthcare costs in the U.S. To determine this, the study used systematic reviews by York Health Economics Consortium (YHEC) and Cochrane Collaborative.

The Cochrane scenario showed that if everyone in the U.S. took probiotics, health care payers would save $373 million in RTI-associated medical bills in one year. That figure, according to the release, includes the cost of more than two million courses of antibiotic prescriptions averted and corresponds to a decrease of 54.5 million sick days. Counting the savings from reduced productivity loss of 4.2 million workdays, the release explains, the total savings for society would amount to $1.4 billion. The YHEC scenario suggested that generalized probiotic use could save $784 million per year for averted productivity loss related to people missing work due to sick day.
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“Because both reviews included studies from different strains of probiotics, including both effective and ineffective ones, our results are based on an estimated averageeffect,” said Tancredi in the release. “With more evidence on which probiotics are effective in protecting against RTIs, it would be possible generate more definitive estimates of the potential cost savings associated with their use.”

"[The] results suggest that recommending daily probiotic consumption may be justified for particular at-risk populations, such as children or individuals with a shared indoor environment, for which this study shows a higher incremental benefit," the researchers concluded in the study, which was supported by an unrestricted grant from Chr. Hansen.