Demand for over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines at Christmas was nearly 60% higher than in 2019, according to market research figures shared with The Pharmacist by PAGB.

Figures from IRI show that unit sales for over-the-counter cough and cold medicines were 59% higher in the week ending 24 December 2022 than in 2019.[1]

Meanwhile, incidences of coughs, colds and flu were 46% higher in December than the same point in 2021, surpassing pre-pandemic figures and well exceeding the five-year average, according to figures from IQVIA.[2]

This comes amid reported shortages of cold and flu medications. Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) said that ‘supply [of common flu medications] is struggling to meet the demand’ as she shared a photograph of empty shelves on social media.

Katherine Gough, NHS Chief Pharmacist in Dorset, added in a reply to Ms Hannbeck’s Tweet: ‘Having been in touch and visited local pharmacies today [3 January] and over the bank holidays, this is a supply issue. They are ordering, but have non [sic] idea what will arrive, if anything. There are shortages.’

However, Michelle Riddalls, CEO of PAGB, which represents the interests of OTC manufacturers, told The Pharmacist that ‘while some cough or cold products may be less readily available at some stores this is likely to be local and very sporadic as there are no reports of widespread shortages’.

‘Over-the-counter medicine companies are running to maximum capacity to meet this demand and are not reporting any issues supplying these medicines,’ she said.

She added that consumers should be able to purchase alternatives to preferred brands, including products like nasal sprays, lozenges, cough drops to ointments and topical balms, and advised consumers to speak to their pharmacist for self-care advice.

A spokesperson for Reckitt, which produces OTC cold and flu treatment Lemsip, told The Pharmacist that it was ‘seeing significantly increased demand during the current cold and flu season’ and that it was ‘doing all we can to maximise availability for our customers and consumers’.

Recent data from NHS Digital recorded 3,764 patients per day in hospital with flu in the last week of December, up from 520 only a month before the latest data. With Covid cases also on the rise, the NHS said that fears of a ‘twindemic’ had been realised.

Meanwhile, a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warned that a quarter of UK adults would be unlikely to get the winter flu vaccine if they were invited, due to vaccine inequality –  which the IPPR said should be treated as an ‘injustice’ rather than a choice.

Concerns over medicines supply issues have been widespread in recent months. Pharmacists have complained of dispensing at a loss, prompting the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee to demand a fix to the price concessions system – which the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that it was working on ‘at pace’ in a statement to The Pharmacist in November.

In December, amid heightened concern about Strep A infections, pharmacists reported increased demand for and difficulties getting hold of antibiotics. DHSC initially said that it was not aware of any supply issues of amoxicillin, but later issued three serious shortage protocols (SSPs) for penicillin, allowing pharmacists to dispense alternative formulations to help manage ‘local supply issues’.

Pharmacists including Thorrun Govind, England chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, called for a change in the law to allow pharmacists to amend prescriptions without the need for a protocol.

This followed widespread issues with HRT supply amid increased demand earlier this year.

In December, the National Pharmacy Association wrote to Steve Barclay to ask him to convene a medicines supply taskforce, joining leaders across the sector in calling for an overhaul of the system to resolve medicines supply issues.

And earlier today, Ms Hannbeck tweeted that she had had ‘constructive discussions’ with Minister of State for Health and Secondary Care Will Quince regarding the medicines supply chain.

[1] IRI OTC Cough, Cold & Respiratory, Unit Sales 4 w/e 24 Dec 2022 vs 2019, figure shared by PAGB.

[2] IQVIA Flu/Cough/Cold Notification (FAN) 2022/2023 season as of w/e December 17th 2022, figure shared by PAGB.