under pressure | 

Cough and cold treatments in short supply as pharmacies scramble to keep up with demand

Supplies of cough, cold and flu remedies all running low at pharmacies nationwide

Laura LynottIndependent.ie

Popular cough and cold treatments are running in short supply as pharmacies scramble to stock the shelves and keep up with demand.

A “perfect storm” of respiratory illness has swept the country, leading to low availability of cough medicines, throat sprays and lozenges at many pharmacies.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly warned earlier this week that the pressure on the health service was likely to worsen in the coming weeks.

The HSE also said it could not rule out the possibility of 1,000 people waiting on trolleys in hospitals because the number of flu cases was likely to continue to rise.

In the eye of this storm, pharmacies nationwide have already voiced concerns about vital antibiotics and steroids.

But now common treatments for cold and flu are running short as thousands of people are sick with Covid, RSV and other illnesses. Major producers of common over-the-counter medicines said they were working hard to keep up with demand amid an “extremely challenging cold and flu season”.

It is understood there are two main wholesalers of medicines in Ireland that are experiencing huge demand for products such as cough bottles and throat sprays.

Kathy Maher, chair of the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) Contractors’ Committee, said: “This is a perfect storm of supply-chain problems and an increase in respiratory illnesses.”

In terms of supply, she said: “We have some over-the-counter cough medicines but there’s a minimal supply.

“The supply of cough medicine is really limited.

“I don’t know how powerful the purchasing power is for large pharmacies, but we work in a rural Meath pharmacy and are stuck for anything for dry and chesty coughs.

“People really rely on these products when they don’t need to go to the GP. But now our ability to help as pharmacists has been reduced.”

She said it was a race to keep up with high demand, and “your heart lifts if you get a product that has not been previously available”.

Ms Maher said the number of people visiting her pharmacy was now “much higher” than during the Christmas period.

“It’s been really busy,” Ms Maher said. “We’re dealing with all respiratory illnesses. People have been so ill. There’s so much respiratory illness out there.”

In a bid to try to control the stem of respiratory illness, Ms Maher said people should wear a face mask, practise good hygiene and don’t go into work or school if sick.

“Viral illnesses can be managed at home but people need to be aware of the warning signals of an illness getting worse and when people need to get more help.” The IPU said many people visiting pharmacies now had coughs, colds, Covid-19, RSV, flu and other respiratory illnesses.

Many are being prescribed antibiotics and steroids and there’s already been a reported a shortage of some of these more vital drugs.

Pharmacies are also selling a substantial number of antigen tests.

It means that so far, the public continues to test regularly for Covid-19, despite a 23pc Vat increase on the tests, introduced last weekend.

Shane Kelly, a pharmacist in Tipperary town, said: “There’s a shortage of over-the-counter medicines. There aren’t sufficient stocks. Activity levels are very high, much higher than normal.”

Martin Grzybowski, a pharmacist at Hickey’s Pharmacy on O’Connell Street in Dublin city centre, said: “There are limited suggestions to help with patients’ problems right now, as a number of products are out of stock.

“There are not many over-the-counter medicines for coughs. There’s not a lot of options for upper respiratory illnesses. It’s cold and flu season and people have upper respiratory infections.

“There’s so many respiratory conditions going around. We’ve never seen it busier and supply is limited.”

United Drug, a company with headquarters in Dublin, distributes more than 50pc of all medicines in Ireland.

A spokesperson for the firm said: “The past few weeks have been considerably challenging for the entire healthcare sector.

“We’re experiencing a sharp and unprecedented demand for some cold and flu medicines and antibiotics due to high incidence of sickness, as well as manufacturer supply issues.

“Meeting the needs of patients remains our number one priority and we’re working closely with our industry stakeholders and suppliers to alleviate the disruptions caused.”

Johnson & Johnson in the US further explained why Irish customers were seeing a lack of its products on pharmacy shelves, including over-the-counter cough medicines.

Johnson & Johnson’s consumer health spokesperson told the Irish Independent: “We are experiencing high consumer demand driven by an extremely challenging cold and flu season.

“We recognise this is a difficult time for parents and caregivers, and we are doing everything we can to make sure people have access to the products they need, including maximising our production capacity, running our sites 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“While products may be less readily available at some stores, we are not experiencing widespread shortages. We will continue to partner closely with retailers to provide these products to consumers.”

However, Johnson & Johnson insisted it was not facing supply chain challenges, or ingredient issues.

The challenge, it explained, is “demand-driven”.

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