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Over-the-counter flu and cold medicine shortage continues across the world
By Cassie B. // Jan 05, 2023

Over-the-counter cold and flu medicines are in short supply in several countries amid spikes in cases of winter illnesses like the seasonal flu and common cold.

In the UK, pharmacists are reporting severe shortages of the country’s most common flu and cold meds as demand for OTC remedies surges. The problem is being blamed, at least in part, on individuals who are unable to get doctor’s appointments and attempting to treat their ailments on their own.

Popular brands like Day and Night Nurse and Lemsip are completely sold out in multiple pharmacies, with photos popping up all over social media of depleted pharmacy shelves.

Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies Head Dr. Leyla Hannbeck characterized the problem as a “nightmare.” She said: “Pharmacists can't get hold of some of the most common cold and flu medicines, and are sending me pictures of how empty shelves are. People cannot get GP appointments and are told to look after themselves not to put pressure on the NHS."

She added: "With cases of cold and flu being higher this season, this has led to many people buying over the counter medicines and has led to higher demand."

Shortages continue in North America

In the U.S., meanwhile, the FDA and several drug manufacturers have been reporting shortages of many popular cold and flu medications, especially for children.

Pharmacists and parents throughout the nation have been reporting increasing difficulty obtaining medications for sore throats, upper respiratory illnesses, ear infections and flu. Major drugstore chains like Walgreens and CVS have said they will limit sales of certain types of medications. CVS has placed a two-product limit in stores and online on purchases of some medications, while Walgreens is limiting purchases online to six units.

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Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Dr. James Antoon said the nationwide rise can be attributed to the decline in respiratory viruses seen during the pandemic.

He said: “As a result, there are a large number of children less than three years old who have never been exposed to RSV and influenza, and the pool of susceptible children with no underlying natural immunity to these viruses is much larger this year than years past.”

A serious shortage of flu medication Tamiflu prompted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to release stockpiles of the drug to certain jurisdictions that are being hit hard by flu. The fill rate for Tamiflu through early December had already reached the rate usually recorded at the peak of flu season in late December and January.

Canada is also experiencing shortages, with pharmacies across Toronto reporting that many adult cold and flu medications are out of stock. One pharmacist, Semah Salib, told the media that the situation was unprecedented.

“Nothing is available,” he noted. “It’s never happened before. Over the last 20 years, we always have supply and out of the supply we have some extra … but this is the first year we have none.”

Some experts have said that the shortage of adult meds stems from a similar shortage of children’s cold and flu medication that was seen throughout the country, which saw some doctors recommending splitting adult tablets to treat sick children. An earlier-than-usual flu and cold season and Canada’s dependence on international supply have also contributed to the problem.

While some of these medications may help alleviate symptoms, healthcare professionals admit they are not cures and that home remedies can help with the flu and common colds.

Ontario Pharmacists Association’s Justin Bates told Canada’s Global News: “Not all fevers … and colds need to be treated. It helps manage symptoms, but they don’t cure it so there are home remedies — everything from fluid intake and rest — there are recommendations that health care providers can give to ease some of those symptoms.”

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