Demand for children’s medications during ‘tripledemic’ forces pharmacies to limit purchases

Since last year, there's been 65 percent jump in the sale of children's fever reducers and medications.
A sleeping baby with an adult holding a thermometer.

A sleeping baby with an adult holding a thermometer. Deposit Photos

Due to increased demand, pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens have limited purchases of children’s pain relievers and fever reducers. The demand comes amid a “tripledemic” surge of respiratory infections including flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID-19. Particularly vulnerable to RSV, the virus has hospitalized more than four out of every 1,000 children under the age of five this season, according to the CDC.

In November, the spike in illnesses led to a 65 percent increase in the sale of children’s fever reducers and medications compared to November 2021, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA). The association represents some of the companies that make the medications including Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, Haleon the maker of Advil, and Perrigo, which manufacturers generic store brands.

[Related: Is it flu or RSV? It can be tough to tell.]

In a statement, CHPA said that it doesn’t yet have a timeline for when the supply may catch up with demand and stressed that the manufacturers were working to replenish the medications as quickly as possible.

At Walgreens, customers are limited to online purchases of six over-the-counter fever reducers per purchase, but the company does not currently have an in-store limit.

“Due to increased demand and various supplier challenges, over-the-counter pediatric fever reducing products are seeing constraint across the country,” said Walgreens, said in a statement. Walgreens added that the limits are, “in an effort to help support availability and avoid excess purchases.”

CVS also cited the increased demand for these items for their two-product per person limit on both online and in-store purchases. A spokesperson for CVS told The New York Times, “We can confirm that to ensure equitable access for all our customers, there is currently a two (2) product limit on all children’s pain relief products. We’re committed to meeting our customers’ needs and are working with our suppliers to ensure continued access to these items.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is urging parents “not to panic” if they are unable to find fever-reducing medicine. “These medicines are not curative. They don’t alter the duration of the illness or anything like that. They are essentially purely for comfort,” Sean O’Leary, chair of the Committee on Infectious Diseases for the AAP, told NPR earlier in December. “Fevers from common respiratory viruses in and of themselves are not harmful.”

[Related: No, you can’t get the flu from a flu shot.]

While weekly RSV hospitalizations have recently decreased, the number hospitalizations is still higher than normal for this time of year.

Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, told PopSci in October that RSV exposure early in life helps train the immune system and most RSV infections occur in babies whose immune systems are still developing. Beginning in early 2020, children did not attend as many in-person activities, which lowered their chance of infection and the creation of an appropriate immune defense. “They have zero antibodies because these kids, who were 1 and 2 during the pandemic, were not exposed to RSV,” Ganjian said. “Now they’re getting it for the first time and they’re getting severe reactions,” he said. Infected infants may cough and wheeze for about two weeks, but most babies make a full recovery. A 2022 study in The Lancet estimates that RSV caused 7 percent of infant deaths, with most occurring in children under 3.

Wearing a face mask, staying up to date with flu and COVID-19 vaccination, good hand-washing, and other general health practices can help prevent infection from respiratory infections.