Pharmacies in B.C.'s Lower Mainland report shortages of adult cold and flu medications

Shelves at a pharmacy in Burnaby, B.C., are pictured empty due to a shortage of adult cold and flu medication stock. Pharmacists are asking people to avoid purchasing medication if they are not sick. (Susana da Silva/CBC - image credit)
Shelves at a pharmacy in Burnaby, B.C., are pictured empty due to a shortage of adult cold and flu medication stock. Pharmacists are asking people to avoid purchasing medication if they are not sick. (Susana da Silva/CBC - image credit)

Rudy Chin says in his 27-year-long career, he's never seen shortages of adult cold and flu medications like the one he's seeing now.

"About two weeks ago it was almost zero," said the Vancouver-based pharmacist. "We literally had nothing on the shelves, and we have probably about 30 per cent [of stock right now]."

He's one of many across the Lower Mainland reporting having five to 25 per cent of their typical cold and flu medication stock — a supply that won't be able to meet the demands of the current cold and flu season, they say.

The shortage of adult medication in B.C. follows a surge in flu cases and shortages in children's cold medication, which are also ongoing, according to pharmacists.

Jamie Wigston, a New Westminster pharmacist and former president of the B.C. Pharmacy Association, says he believes the rise of different respiratory viruses such as COVID-19, the flu and RSV have led to the shortages.

"There's just such a large influx of people needing cough and cold products and so the companies that are making them, it's just hard to keep up with demand," he said, adding that heightened public concern over the past year has been over shortages of frequently used medications.

"There's always a shortage of something and this is a shortage of medication that is a lot more common for people."

WATCH | Some doctors suggest home remedies amid shortage of cold medications: 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the office of the Minister of Health said they are aware of the ongoing shortage.

"We are closely monitoring the situation as it is evolving quickly," Guillaume Bertrand said.

"Our office and Health Canada is already in discussion with manufacturers here in Canada and abroad."

Wait until sick before buying medication: pharmacist

Vancouver-based family physician Anna Wolak says there is no cause for major concern with this specific shortage, as cold and flu medication mainly provide symptomatic relief and are not necessary to heal from illnesses.

She recommends using Tylenol or Advil to bring down fevers, and using home remedies like honey with hot water to treat coughs and congestion.

Wigston also recommends going back to the basics: "If the cough is really dry, there's still a lot of lozenges available," he said.

"[If] you're coughing up a lot of phlegm and mucus, what works as well as the medication for that, is just drinking more water. It just helps to loosen it up and make it easier to cough out."

He also advises against hoarding medication.

"[People are] expecting to get sick at one point and so they just want to make sure they have something," he said.

"But during a time when there is a shortage of certain products of cough and cold, usually we like to stress the people that don't go out and buy things preemptively. Wait until you're actually sick."

For those going to stores to find any available medication, Chin recommends speaking with a pharmacist for advice on specific needs.

"Go up to your pharmacist and just tell them what you need," he said, "what are your symptoms and they'll be able to let you know specifically what's the best option for you."