High demand pushes retailers to limit purchases of OTC children’s medicines

HHS, FDA urge manufacturers to boost supply due to elevated flu, RSV, COVID infections across the country.
ShopRite_children OTC medicine-purchase limit sign
A ShopRite supermarket placed a two-item limit on over-the-counter children's pain relievers. / Photo by Russell Redman

With retailers placing purchase limits on children’s over-the-counter pain relief and cold/cough/flu medicines, the heads of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration are calling for a ramp-up in supply amid a surge in flu, RSV and COVID-19 infections.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and FDA Commissioner Robert Califf this week conferred with senior leaders at major consumer drug makers and distributors for an update on production and distribution of OTC pediatric medicines. All of the companies said they’re running manufacturing facilities 24x7 to keep pace with the spike in demand, HHS reported. Participants in the talks included the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) and manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson and Perrigo.

Sales of OTC pediatric internal analgesics are up 65% year over year, according to CHPA, which cited a severe flu season—including the earliest peak in over a decade—plus an uptick in cases of respiratory diseases like COVID and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the latter especially prevalent among children. Still, the association noted there’s not an overall shortage of children’s cough, cold, fever reducer and pain reliever products in the United States, but just a period of unprecedented demand.

“Manufacturers continue operating at maximum capacity to replenish children’s pain and fever reducers to meet current extraordinary demand,” CHPA said in a statement on Wednesday. “While there is not a widespread shortage and our member companies are continuously shipping out products to retailers to replenish supply as quickly as possible, we recognize that limited products on store shelves is frustrating for parents and caregivers.”

Walgreens_children OTC medicine-purchase limit sign

Walgreens has put online purchase limits for children's OTC medicines but hasn't restricted in-store sales, despite shortages. / Photo by Russell Redman

Food, drug, mass and other retailers have limited purchases of such children’s medicines to prevent consumers from stocking up, which would leave others without access to these medications, CHPA explained.

“We understand why some retailers have voluntarily set limits on purchases to ensure the availability of these products to as many consumers as possible,” CHPA stated. “Our member companies are also focused on ensuring equitable distribution of these medicines to retailers, working with them to direct product to locations where it is needed most, while at the same time doing everything possible to make sure hospitals have children’s pain and fever reducers on hand.”

Supermarket giant The Kroger Co., which operates more than 2,700 stores and over 2,250 pharmacies in 35 states, has enacted purchase limits on OTC children’s pain reliever/fever reducers and cough/cold/flu medicines in stores and online.

“Retailers are currently experiencing constrained supplies of children’s pain relievers as well as children’s cold and flu medication,” a Kroger spokesperson said in an email statement. “To ensure all families can access these important medicines, Kroger has asked customers to limit their purchase to two pediatric pain medications and four cold and flu items.”

Published reports said CVS Health has instituted in-store and online limits of two pediatric pain relief products per purchase. Rival drug chains Walgreens and Rite Aid reported that they currently aren’t limiting in-store purchases of these medicines but are doing so online.

CVS_children OTC medicine-empty shelves

Empty shelves at a CVS store in Long Island, N.Y., show the out-of-stocks that parents are encountering with children's medicines. / Photo by Russell Redman

“Retailers nationwide are experiencing supplier fulfillment challenges due to increased demand of over-the-counter pediatric fever-reducing products. While Walgreens continues to have products to support our customers and patients, we have put into effect an online only purchase limit of six per online transaction to prevent excess purchasing behavior,” Walgreens said in a statement on Tuesday. “For customers looking for items, our website updates with the latest available store inventory information frequently throughout the day.”

In an email, a Rite Aid spokesperson said the drugstore chain has only enacted an online purchase limit of five for the 4 oz. grape flavor of Children’s Tylenol, while all other flavors and varieties of Children’s Tylenol aren’t subject to any limits.

“We are experiencing high demand of pediatric and adult over-the-counter cold/flu medication and fever reducer/pain reliever due to high illness incidence,” Rite Aid said in a statement. “We are working closely with suppliers to meet the demand and mitigate shortages where possible. If customers don’t see their preferred cold/flu treatment products on the shelf, they should speak with the pharmacist for recommendations on other OTC options that best suit their needs.”

Target is reportedly limiting online purchases of OTC children’s pain relievers, while Walmart told CNET that it hasn’t altered in-store or online purchasing policies for these products but has experienced “higher demand for pediatric OTC pain medications this year.”

Parents encountering intermittent out-of-stocks at their usual retailer or pharmacy can try different brands with the same ingredients as well as different formulations, such as chewables instead of liquid for children ages 2 and older, CHPA said.

“In terms of when supply will fully catch up with demand, we are encouraged by new figures from the CDC that indicate flu cases in the U.S. have declined for the third straight week and hope this will lessen demand in the near future,” CHPA stated on Wednesday. “As this situation continues to rapidly evolve, CHPA encourages consumers to buy only what they need so other families can find and purchase the medicines they are seeking.”



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