In recent weeks, a surge of three viruses has swept over the United States: COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza.
Unfortunately, as virus numbers mounted, it got harder to find medications to relieve symptoms. Many people rushed to the drugstore looking for acetaminophen, better known as Tylenol, which is known for its fever and pain-reducing powers. Children's Tylenol is in particularly short supply, causing anxiety and stress for parents everywhere—and it doesn't help that Tylenol alternatives, like children's Motrin (ibuprofen), and in short supply too.
Why Is There a Tylenol Shortage?
The current Tylenol shortage (and this is far from the only medicine shortage), isn’t actually a manufacturing issue, says Dr. Wendy Hasson, MD, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “But it’s an enormous increase in demand,” she says. “There was probably an element of people trying to stock up, not unlike the infamous toilet paper incidents of early 2020.”
Regardless of the reason for the shortage, parents especially have been scrambling to figure out what to do.
What do you do when your baby’s sick or your preschooler is achy and feverish, and you’re nearly out of your favorite children’s medicine?
How Parents Can Cope
It can definitely be stressful when your child is sick, especially if they’re running a fever. A quick reminder from the AAP: a fever is a temperature at or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to your pediatrician or healthcare provider for a little more guidance in navigating a fever,” says Dr. Lena van der List, DO, a pediatrician with UC Davis Health.
Here are some other pediatrician-recommended strategies for coping with the current shortage of some popular children’s medications:
Give your child a lukewarm bath
One way to help bring down your child’s temperature temporarily is a lukewarm bath. Test the water and make sure it’s tepid, neither too hot nor too cold to be comfortable.
Offer a cool compress
Soak a washcloth in cool water and place it on your child’s forehead to offer some cooling relief.
Related: What Do I Have: Is It a Cold, or the Flu?
Encourage your child to drink fluids
Keep your child well hydrated by encouraging them to drink plenty of fluids. A popsicle might taste good and appeal to your child, too, says Dr. Hasson.
Check with your friends or neighbors to see if they have any new, unexpired children’s fever- or pain-reducing medication that you can use in a pinch if you can’t land any of your own.
Use the meds you have judiciously
If you do have some medication on hand, try to use it judiciously. Parents sometimes alternate medications when their child has a high fever to try to bring and keep the temperature down, which can be very appropriate. “But if your kid is just a little under the weather…you don’t need to give the doses that frequently, so save the medication,” says Dr. van der List, adding that you should also be mindful to not exceed the maximum daily dose of medication too.
Use a generic brand
You certainly don’t have to rely on brand-name meds, says pediatrician Dr. William Chu, MD, the medical director at Pediatrix Primary + Urgent Care of Texas. “Generic medications are just as effective as the brand name ones and may be more readily available,” he says.
Try an alternative, like Motrin
While children's Motrin (ibuprofen) can be difficult to find right now, too, as long as your child is over six months old it's an appropriate and effective medication for fever and pain relief, so if that's all that's available at your local store, you shouldn't shy away from using it instead.
Try a suppository
“Acetaminophen suppositories are a great option,” says Dr. Hasson. “And kids don’t mind them at all.” Plus, you don’t have to worry about your child vomiting right after you give them a dose of oral medicine and wondering if they kept any of the medication down.
Related: Why Adderall Is In Short Supply Right Now, and What to Do If You're Affected
What Not To Do
Here’s what not to do if you have a sick kid on your hands and you’re fresh out of your favorite children’s medication:
Don’t take expired medication
It’s tempting to use expired meds when you can’t get your hands on new ones. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautions that it’s risky to take expired medication. There’s no guarantee that the medication will be safe or effective after the expiration date has passed.
Don’t give adult medication to children
You may also be tempted to offer your own acetaminophen or ibuprofen to your child, but that’s definitely not a good idea. Children under 12 should not take adult medicine, notes Dr. Hasson. They need to take medication that takes their age and weight into account.
Don’t give your child aspirin
“We want to avoid using aspirin in children because of the risk of a condition called Reye’s syndrome,” says Dr. van der List. “Basically, Reye’s syndrome can arise when a child is recovering from a viral illness, which many kids are when they are taking these medications. Reye’s syndrome can be very serious and cause multiple organ system dysfunctions and even brain injury.”
Related: These Are the Top RSV Symptoms to Watch Out For—and How To Tell if It’s Really a Cold, Flu or COVID
If you do luck into a restock of your favorite children’s medication or even a generic alternative, don’t grab them all for your own stockpile, says Dr. Hasson. Just buy what you need and leave the rest for others.
Another recommendation: don’t panic if your child develops a fever. Kids have very strong immune responses, so they tend to spike fevers that might alarm you, notes Dr. Hasson. But it might not be as dire as you think.
“Fevers are not a big emergency,” says Dr. van der List. “Actually, they’re good in that they’re doing the body’s work in fighting off this illness. I always tell parents to treat the kid and not the number that they see on the thermometer.”
Adds Dr. Hasson, “Treating a fever is (usually) more for comfort than it is for safety.” If your child is grumpy and tired, but they’re eating and drinking normally, you probably don’t need to panic. But you should keep an eye out for more serious symptoms like dehydration, lethargy and trouble breathing.
The exception is babies two months of age and younger. If your newborn has a fever, call the pediatrician and ask for guidance.
What Is the FDA Doing About the Situation?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is aware of ongoing medication shortages and says it’s working on it. It has acknowledged that it’s received many reports of increased demand for medications that reduce fevers in children.
On January 10, the FDA posted this statement on the Drug Shortages page on its website: “FDA is continuing to closely monitor the pediatric ibuprofen and acetaminophen supplies which have experienced increased demand since the fall of 2022 due to increases in respiratory illnesses. We are working closely with the manufacturers on their efforts to further increase supply in response to the increased demand.”
Then, on January 20, the FDA released guidance for hospitals and health systems for compounding certain ibuprofen products, acknowledging that this could help when supply can’t keep up with the record high demand for ibuprofen oral suspension products.
What To Expect
While the shortages linger, keep an eye on disease activity in your area. RSV and flu activity varies from region to region, but some areas have already seen declines from peak activity. However, experts note that there’s still a lot of winter left.
“We saw RSV peak in early November and flu peaked towards the end of November,” says Dr. Chu. “So right now, the numbers are much lower than they had been at that time, but the season is not over yet, and there may be another surge of respiratory illnesses before the spring.”
If there is indeed a lull, it might have an advantage. “This decrease in viral illnesses should help the supply of children’s medication catch up to the decreased demand,” says Dr. Chu.
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