Medication shortages are hardly a new phenomenon—though they’ve certainly been making more headlines this year. People in the U.S. are already struggling to fill certain prescriptions for medications like Adderall and amoxicillin, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirming ongoing shortages. But it’s not just prescribed pills that are becoming harder to secure. Now, many patients are reporting issues finding over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu medication at popular pharmacies. Read on to find out why these essential treatments are in short supply.
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If you’re headed to your local CVS or Walgreens to alleviate the symptoms of a cold or flu, you may be leaving empty-handed. People across the country have been reporting difficulty securing these OTC meds at multiple pharmacies.
“There’s no cold medicine [right now] at CVS,” one person tweeted on Nov. 30. And they’re not alone. Another Twitter user said on Nov. 18, “Went to two CVS, the first one was completely sold out of children’s cold and flu medicine, the other had two bottles left of infant Tylenol and two bottles left of children’s Motrin—the rest of the shelves were empty. This seems… bad.”
Similar complaints are being made about Walgreens stores. “So everyone gets sick [at] the same time because Walgreens is wiped out of cold medicine,” one person tweeted on Nov. 27. Another Twitter user shared a photo of a nearly cleared out shelf of meds at a Walgreens store on Nov. 14. “If anyone wonders how cold [and] flu season is going, I present this shelf at my local Walgreens,” they wrote alongside the picture.
CVS has not yet responded to an inquiry about the supply of OTC cold and flu medications. But Walgreens spokeswoman Zoe Krey told Best Life that the company is “prepared and able to continue meeting the needs of [its] customers and patients,” despite an increased demand for these OTC medications.
“We are working with our diverse set of suppliers and distributors to ensure our patients have the products they need most,” Krey said. “Walgreens has taken steps in recent years to prepare for supply issues with a focus on the products our customers need most. We work with our suppliers to minimize disruptions and ensure our customers and patients have access to the products and services they need.”
Experts are pointing to two major issues that are likely contributing to the dwindling supply of cold and flu medications: an early flu surge and increased demand. According to Healthline, the peak of flu season in the U.S. usually occurs in February and March, but cases are already spiking.
Jason Kessler, MD, section chief of the Infectious Disease Department of Medicine at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, told Healthline that “unprecedentedly mild flu seasons” last year and the year prior due to COVID restrictions have rebounded to create worse rates of sickness in 2022.
“This likely had the unintended effect of increasing many individuals’ susceptibility to infection and illness,” he said. “Annual exposure [to viruses] helps ‘prime’ our immune systems to either prevent or attenuate these infections each year.”
As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 70 percent of the nation is currently facing high or very high levels of influenza, per NBC-affiliate KSBY.
“People don’t have a good appreciation for how severe flu can be,” Lynnette Brammer, MPH, an epidemiologist and team lead of CDC’s domestic influenza surveillance team, told NBC News. “We are likely to see an increase in the upcoming weeks … It’s a pretty safe bet that flu activity is going to continue on for several more weeks or months.”
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Pharmacies seem to be struggling with OTC meds across the board due to heightened cold and flu illnesses, but kids might be bearing the brunt of it. According to a Dec. 1 report from The Washington Post, usual supplies of children’s Tylenol and ibuprofen—which are recommended to treat children with illnesses like RSV, flu, colds, and COVID—have not been able to keep up with demand in certain parts of the country recently.
Kristina Powell, MD, a pediatrician in Williamsburg, Virginia, and president of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the newspaper it is “a huge problem” that pharmacy shelves are empty for children’s OTC cold and flu medicine. “This is a result of the ‘triple-demic,'” she said, referring to the flu, COVID, and RSV.
It’s not just that OTC meds are flying off the shelves at CVS and Walgreens, however. Two national pharmacy groups have just confirmed that Tamiflu, a popular drug prescribed to treat the influenza virus, and its generic versions, are facing supply issues this year, NBC 5 Chicago reported on Nov. 30.
Michael Ganio, a pharmacist with the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), told the news outlet that the shortage started with children’s dosages but has since expanded over the last several weeks. “While those initial reports of shortage were in the lower strengths in liquid formulation [for children], the full strength or the adult dose is also starting to become concerning as far as supply,” Ganio said.
Best Life also reached out to CVS and Walgreens about Tamiflu supply at their pharmacies. CVS has not yet responded, and Walgreens did not respond to specific questions about this medication. But a spokesperson for CVS told NBC 5 Chicago that the company is “not experiencing a widespread shortage of Tamiflu at this time,” while acknowledging that they are “seeing increased demand at [its] stores nationwide and sporadic shipping from select manufacturers.”
“We’re continuing to supply stores with Tamiflu and other flu-related medications using our existing inventory network, but there will be increased instances when individual pharmacies could be temporarily out-of-stock. We’re closely monitoring the situation and are working with suppliers to ensure our patients have access to flu-related medications,” the CVS spokesperson added. Walgreens also provided a statement to the news outlet, acknowledging “temporary and isolated” shortages of Tamiflu at its pharmacies.