Swell of Colds, Flus, and Covid is at Least Helping OTC Drug Sales

Photo Credit: Towfiqu Barbhuiya Unsplash
Photo Credit: Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash

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A combination of flu, Covid, and respiratory viruses has created a miserable winter sickness cocktail with which the whole world can ring in the new year.

That’s good news for drug companies slinging over-the-counter cold medicine, but bad news for local pharmacy shelves increasingly barren of Theraflu, NyQuil, and Tylenol. The disappointment of flu sufferers unable to score meds is unlikely to be ameliorated by medical experts’ recent declaration that most decongestant remedies are totally useless.

Another Kind of Rising Rate

Globally, both Covid-19 and flu rates have surged in recent weeks, according to a report from the World Health Organization. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control has already identified 20 million cases of flu so far this season, a huge leap from last year’s estimated 9 million. Adding more germs to the pool are loosened Covid restrictions that made Christmas and New Year’s Eve shindigs breeding grounds for fevers, runny noses, and sore throats. Throw RSV into the mix and 2023 is starting off with a loud cough.

Haleon and Reckitt, the makers of Robitussin and Lemsip, respectively, reported third-quarter sales growth and noted consumers were stocking up for the fourth quarter, too. Thanks [eyeroll] to a “strong and prolonged cold and flu season” Haleon’s respiratory drugs brought in $480 million in 2022’s third quarter, a 30% surge year-over-year. However, with those rising sales also come shortages:

  • Parents are having a tough time finding children’s medicine. In the four-week period ending on Dec. 3, US cough medicine and throat spray sales rose 35% and 56%, respectively, year-over-year. And soon after, CVS and Walgreens began limiting the sale of those medications.
  • The WHO recently reported severe shortages of antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin around the world, highlighting an unstable supply chain.

Achoo! Before you down that next shot of Theraflu or pop another Benadryl, you might want to hear what doctors are saying. A coalition of medical experts is calling on the Food and Drug Administration to stop the sale of certain OTC congestion drugs after multiple studies found the medications’ main ingredient, phenylephrine, doesn’t actually clear stuffy noses. “Why give something if it has no benefit?” allergist Eli Meltzer told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a waste of money.” This doesn’t mean resorting to TikTok’s favorite method of jamming garlic up your nose either.

-Griffin Kelly