No quick fix for shortage of cold, flu medication, pharmacists say

Shelves that should have adult cold and flu medication are empty at a pharmacy in Burnaby, B.C. Pharmacists say there is a shortage of such medication across the country.  (Susana da Silva/CBC - image credit)
Shelves that should have adult cold and flu medication are empty at a pharmacy in Burnaby, B.C. Pharmacists say there is a shortage of such medication across the country. (Susana da Silva/CBC - image credit)

Soaring and sustained demand for adult cold and flu medication is forcing pharmacists and patients to contend with shortages across Canada.

Pharmacists say there's no clear sense of when the demand will let up, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the added challenges posed by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu.

"The demand is such a critical piece of this particular puzzle that it is very hard to anticipate what the next several months are going to look like," said Joelle Walker, vice-president of public and professional affairs for the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

Similar shortages are being reported in the United States and the United Kingdom, also amid increased demand.

Justin Bates, the head of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, doesn't see a short-term solution, pointing to the limited capacity of manufacturers in Canada to ramp up production any more than they already have.

"[They're] playing catch-up constantly," Bates told CBC News Network on Thursday.

Going forward, once the shelves have been restocked, he says the industry should look at "mitigating factors" so that supplies can be more effectively managed during the winter months.

He suggested moving some cold and flu medications behind the counter — to reduce theft and hoarding — as one possibility.

Empty shelves

Pharmacists report empty shelves that would normally hold products for relief from cold and flu symptoms.

"There's so much empty space on the shelf that it just looks like it's been bombed," said Anne Marie Siteman, a pharmacist in Dartmouth, N.S., describing a scarcity she's not seen in 40-plus years on the job.

That lines up with the national picture.

"We've not really dealt with an over-the-counter medication shortage, to this extent, certainly in many years," said Walker.

Susana da Silva/CBC
Susana da Silva/CBC

She says fresh supplies continue to come in, but they move out very quickly.

The federal government has said it's monitoring the situation and speaking to manufacturers about the issue.

Health Canada told CBC News on Thursday it is "aware of elevated demand and supply constraints of over-the-counter adult analgesics" — namely ibuprofen, acetaminophen and combination products — and is working to address them.

'Doing all we can'

Pharmaceutical companies have acknowledged the broader shortage of cold and flu products and say they're working to meet demand.

Reckitt, maker of the cold and flu medication Mucinex, is seeing "significantly increased demand" this season, according to spokesperson Andrea Riepe.

"We are doing all we can to maximize availability," Riepe said via email.

Likewise, the website for Benylin is currently topped with a large banner, saying manufacturer Johnson & Johnson is "taking all possible measures" to get more of the cough medication onto shelves.

Jeff Taylor, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, says the over-the-counter medications in short supply aren't strictly necessary, but serve a useful purpose.

"People want symptom relief," said Taylor, who has been astonished by the shortages he's seen where he lives.

Walker, at the pharmacists' association, says her organization advises people to get their flu shot and their COVID-19 boosters and, if they get sick, talk to a pharmacist or health-care provider about how to alleviate symptoms.