U.S. households are stepping up spending on cough and cold medicines and children’s pain relievers amid a rise in reports of respiratory infections, leading to sporadic shortages of some drugs online and at stores.
Flu infections and hospitalizations are surging across the country, federal data suggests, on top of an already busy season for other respiratory viruses including respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. These viruses are common in
the fall and winter months, but the sharp, early increases have roiled
families and put pressure on children’s hospitals.
At the same time, Covid-19 wastewater levels and Covid-related
hospitalizations have been on the upswing in recent weeks, data show, though both are slightly lower than they were at this time last year.
Sales of cough and cold medications at U.S. retailers rose 35% in the four- week period ended Dec. 3 compared with the same period a year ago, according
to a Jefferies analysis of Nielsen data. Spending on throat sprays and
lozenges increased 56% in the period.
Some versions of top-selling brands, especially pain-relief treatments
designed for children, are sold out on Amazon.com Inc. and the online sites
of CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. Some consumers are
taking to social media to report problems finding medications.
Retailers and data-tracking firms say overall supplies remain healthy amid an increase in demand.
Spokesmen for CVS and Walgreens said that their companies are working with manufacturers to ensure continued supply of medications. An Amazon
spokeswoman said that the company is working to get sold-out items back in stock but that a number of cough and cold products is still available for
Manufacturers of drugs in high demand on Wednesday said their plants were running nonstop.
A spokesman for Procter & Gamble Co., maker of NyQuil, DayQuil and Vicks,
said the country is seeing an “unprecedented level of respiratory need.”
“We are doing everything we can to ensure our products are available to the people who need them,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, whose brands include pain relievers Tylenol and Motrin, said that while some products might be less readily available, the company isn’t experiencing widespread shortages of children’s Tylenol or Motrin.
On Wednesday afternoon, the earliest delivery date on Amazon.com was Dec. 28 for a box of DayQuil and NyQuil cold and flu medication in liquid-capsule
form. But the medication in syrup form was available by Sunday, while private-label options were available sooner.
Children’s Tylenol pain and fever reducer was largely unavailable on CVS’s website, either listed as out of stock or with delivery estimates more than a week out. A number of cold-and-flu medications as well as children’s pain and fever reducers were unavailable for delivery on the Walgreens website.
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, which tracks shortages of medications, has gotten reports on shortages of the flu medication Tamiflu because of high demand, said Michael Ganio, ASHP’s senior director of
pharmacy practice and quality. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which
has a different method for determining shortages, doesn’t have Tamiflu on its shortage list.
The early timing of the flu season might be contributing to the emptying of some shelves, Dr. Ganio said, catching manufacturers that work to anticipate demand off guard. “There’s still inventory coming in,” Dr. Ganio said. “It’s just a matter of being patient, something that is very difficult if you’re a parent or a caregiver of a sick child.”
A rapid rise in pediatric respiratory illnesses has resulted in shortages of some over-the-counter children’s pain relievers at some retail locations, leading some parents to make extra stops for treatments, according to the Consumer Healthcare Product Association, a trade group.
Some pockets of the country are seeing a steep rise in demand for a range of products, though supply is at normal levels nationally and regionally, according to data-tracking firm IRI.
In several parts of Washington state and Oregon, for instance, sales volumes
of cough, cold, flu and sinus medications doubled in the four weeks ended
Dec. 4 compared with a year ago, and those places had more limited selections of medication available, according to IRI. Nationally, sales volumes rose 31% for the same period, IRI data show.
The U.S. has also been grappling with a shortage of amoxicillin, a widely
used antibiotic used to treat bacterial ear and sinus infections. The drug doesn’t work for RSV or other viral infections. But doctors sometimes
prescribe amoxicillin to RSV patients if they can’t figure out the cause or rule out that a child also has a bacterial infection, said Rebecca Schein, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Michigan State University Health Care.
“It is one of the things we address all the time,” said Dr. Schein. “We know this child has RSV. Why are we using the amoxicillin? Do we need to use it?”
Health officials and experts anticipate that gatherings during the holiday season could drive respiratory infections including flu and Covid-19 higher, and many have urged people to get vaccinated and take precautions ahead of gatherings with family and loved ones.
Americans have spent nearly $12 billion on cough and cold medications in the past year, up nearly 30% from a year ago, according to Nielsen.