Soaring demand and people stocking up mean cold medication shortages continue

Across Canada, consumers are noticing the bare shelves at their pharmacies this cold and flu season.

Many have taken to Twitter to document how children’s and adult cough syrup, throat lozenges and cold medications are hard to find.

While supply chain issues have been blamed for months as the reason behind the shortages, the chief pharmacist officer at the Canadian Pharmacists Association (CPhA) says the current problem has as much to do with increased demand, with more people now catching cold viruses and with flu season ramping up.

“These are not widespread manufacturing shortages of medications. Products are arriving in pharmacies, but it’s the soaring demand and the needs from patients that are causing the empty shelves,” the CPhA’s Dr. Danielle Paes told Wednesday in a phone interview.

“I think the perception when you don’t see a product is that you need to stock up, and I think that’s contributing to it as well.”

This is the first cold/flu season people are experiencing since the pandemic without masking and physical distancing restrictions. Experts say the increase is because people are catching viruses since their immune systems have not been exposed for two years.


An Ottawa resident tweeted a photo from the Shoppers Drug Mart in the Ottawa CF Rideau Centre, showing sparsely stocked shelves in the cough, cold and flu section.



The tweet mentions she found “half decent” supplies at another store, but other shoppers aren’t so lucky. Another Twitter user in Hamilton, Ont., said she couldn’t find any adult or children’s cold and flu medication or throat lozenge at her local Shoppers Drugmart.



Across Canada, the situation seems to be the same, with many people noticing fewer cold/flu essentials on shelves.

“It is Canada-wide, which is why we’re seeing it all over the country,+’ Paes said. “It’s something we’re definitely monitoring.”

A Twitter user in Alberta referenced a conversation she had with her local pharmacist on how long the issue has persisted.



Kristen Watt, owner of Kristen’s Pharmacy in Southampton, Ont., told she understands why cold/flu medication is a scarcity.

Watt said in anticipation of cold and flu season in the fall of 2020, pharmacists stocked up on medications only to see no demand because everyone was masked up and staying home.

“Then we didn’t have most of the regular cough, cold (and) flu season, and so all of our stock expired, and we didn’t order a lot more,” she said. “So it’s my assumption that production ramped down, and now we’re seeing increased demand because people are not masking, they’re not distancing and so supplies need to ramp up.”

Watt said she is not concerned about the lack of stock.

“There is really poor evidence for benefit for any of those cough (and) cold products, especially the ones that are combo products,’ she told Wednesday. Watt acknowledges there was a supply shortage, “but (for) most of us, at least in pharmacy and medicine, it’s not overly concerning because (medicines) that are supposed to reduce phlegm, they don’t actually do that.”

Instead, she recommends lots of fluids, rest, and hot beverages for soar throats and sinus rinses for congestion.

“People are having symptoms that they haven’t had in a few years and of course they are bothersome,” she said of the situation.

Watt said the most important thing she tells her clients is to get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19 and stay home if they are sick.


For those who prefer to take those products, however, Paes believes the shortage will come to an end. She told production levels among manufacturers have been 35 per cent higher than normal. The low stock is due to more viral infections spreading among communities.

“Viruses didn’t take a vacation this summer. And they continue to be present in our communities,” she said. “Typically, what happens in the summer months is manufacturers sort of use that time to build up their supplies heading into cough and cold and flu season, they weren’t able to accumulate supplies.”


Toronto emergency doctor Kashif Pirzada said on Twitter that he and his family have been through four colds since his eldest child returned to school. He’s seen more children coming to the hospital and being treated this year with the return to school and lifting of mask mandates.

“They’re not just for COVID(-19), flu… Every virus is back pretty much,” he said. “And my family is no exception.”

Pirzada was relieved when his family in New York agreed to bring children’s medication across the border during Thanksgiving.



For months, Children’s Tylenol and Advil liquid medications have been extremely difficult to find. The shortage is due to increased demand this season and heightened transmission of cold viruses, Pirzada says.


Pirzada recommended parents consult with local pharmacists and measure out child-sized dosages of adult medication if needed. He also pointed to a tweet from Kyro Maseh, a pharmacist in Toronto, who broke down how parents can safely give adult Tylenol and Advile to children.



Pirzada said alternatives to medication like Vicks VapoRub—a topical ointment designed to act as a decongestant—humidifiers and honey can help children (and adults) feel better without cold medication.

He also mentioned adults (but not children) can take anti-allergy medication, like Reactine, and decongestants, like Mucinex, in replacement of Tylenol cold medications.

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