Why there's a children's Tylenol and Motrin shortage — and how we could end it

There is a shortage of children's analgesic medicine – but not for the reasons you might think

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 8, 2022 5:30AM (EST)

Tylenol, acetaminophen (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Tylenol, acetaminophen (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed millions of lives, but SARS-CoV-2 is not the only respiratory disease spreading rapidly in late 2022. There is also respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza, as well as the soup of other bugs floating around and waiting to be accidentally inhaled. Now, as hospitalizations have increased due to this viral trio, supplies of popular medications like children's Tylenol and children's Motrin have sharply plummeted.

The end result is a familiar one for parents: Supply shortages. Only six months after young parents suffered infant formula shortages, now children's pain medications are in short supply too. This time, the culprit is not war or lockdowns wreaking havoc on supply chains, but rather the simple fact that respiratory diseases are spiking and parents are understandably worried about their children and planning ahead.

"Manufacturers and distributors cannot move in perfect stride with the incredible surge in demand that [the] triple-demic (RSV, flu, Covid) is presenting," Dr. Thomas Goldsby, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Tennessee — Knoxville's Haslam College of Business, told Salon by email. "The early flu season, along with RSV, has really advanced demand for respiratory and inflammation treatments." Exacerbating matters, human beings succumb to some of their own least productive consumption habits when they are frightened.

The economic trauma of the pandemic lockdowns have "trained shoppers to not just buy — but stockpile — when they anticipate future needs."

"Concerned parents and grandparents have taken the triple-demic warnings to heart and purchased home supplies beyond and in advance of the need," Goldsby noted. "I must admit that I did this very thing recently – and I've been preaching about how panic buying and hoarding behaviors not just contributed to some shortages (infant formula), [but] caused other shortages (toilet paper) the past couple of years." Until relatively recently, Americans were not used to seeing empty store shelves, and the economic trauma of the pandemic lockdowns have "trained shoppers to not just buy — but stockpile — when they anticipate future needs."

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It is impossible to anticipate the future of this problem because information on drug supplies is scant. As the University of Utah's Drug Information Service Director Erin Fox told The Washington Post, there are too many generic store-brands for different drugs to know with certainty how bad the shortages are. That said, while "there are definitely distribution and supply chain problems that still exist," Fox believes that "these shortages seem to be mostly a demand spike and should resolve relatively quickly."

"While it is an unpopular strategy, it helps when retailers place purchase quantity limits on consumers at the store shelf."

For parents who cannot find medications for their children, doctors are first urging them to avoid hoarding supplies they do not actively need. If the parents' children are sick, however, they can reach out to local pharmacies and follow practical remedies such as keeping their child hydrated. They are urged to schedule appointments with their pediatricians if they have serious health concerns, and certainly to do so before giving them medications like aspirin which can have side effects on children.

Doctors are also urging patients not to attempt to water down adult medications to make them suitable for children, as there are many variables which impact how a child will interact with that medication which are best determined by a physician.

Most importantly, though, parents need to resist the urge to hoard children's versions of popular painkilling medications, experts say. 

"While it is an unpopular strategy, it helps when retailers place purchase quantity limits on consumers at the store shelf," Goldsby wrote to Salon. "In the longer term, state and federal governments can choose to get involved, if they wish, by providing purchase commitments to manufacturers and distributors that would encourage suppliers to make the big investments required to up their capacity."

While this particular shortage may pass, others are likely to happen going forward. It's the nature of how the economy is going to self-adjust in the aftermath of the unprecedented disruptions caused by the pandemic.

"Succinctly, we continue to see supply and demand moving in opposite directions in several sectors," Goldsby explained. "Demand surging for products like cold and flu treatments with supply unable to keep up, and [also] demand for durable products cooling off after 2.5 years of off-the-chart spending while oversupply prevails."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Analgesics Furthering Medicine Motrin Painkillers Shortage Supply Chain Tylenol