As demand grows for children’s pain relievers, Delaware Valley experts offer safe alternatives and warnings of dosing errors

Parents may find it more difficult to find children’s pain relievers as rising demand for these medications leaves pharmacies in short supply.

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A sign is placed near the section for children's medicine

A sign is placed near the section for children's medicine, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022 at a CVS in Greenlawn, N.Y. (AP Photo/Leon Keith)

Both Dr. Mayank Amin and his wife are pharmacists. They’re also parents to a one-and-a-half-year-old child, with another on the way.

They try to be well prepared for any illnesses or medical needs that may arise in their household, especially during winter with the rise of circulating seasonal viruses.

That includes having pain relievers or cough and cold medicines on hand, which would seem fairly easy, given their professions. Amin owns and works at Skippack Pharmacy in Montgomery County.

“Sometimes when my wife tells me, ‘Make sure we have this in our medicine cabinet,’ I always wondered why, when I can just bring it home from the pharmacy on any given day?” Amin said.

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But widespread sickness among children during a “tripledemic” of respiratory illnesses this year is driving up demand for children’s pain relievers and fever reducers, leaving drugstore chains and smaller community pharmacies across the nation in short supply.

Amin said Skippack has not escaped the shortage’s effects.

“We had the parent of a one-and-a-half-year-old today call us and they were looking for just Motrin, Tylenol, any kind of fever reducer,” he said. “I looked at our shelves, it was completely empty.”

Demand for these medications is outpacing the current supply, and some pharmacies have capped the number of products that can be bought in a single purchase.

Amin said the good news is that medications are still coming in. While one pharmacy may be out of supply on any given day, another store may have something in stock.

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However, high utilization of these medications at more homes means there’s an increased potential for accidentally giving the wrong dosing, experts say.

Dr. Jeanette Trella said the region’s Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has seen double the monthly increase in calls related to cough and cold medications compared to the same month-to-month uptick measured last year.

“We could also postulate that if a medication that we’re used to using, say Tylenol liquid, is not available and we have to try other medication types or dosage forms, that would increase our risk of medication errors,” she said.

Trella is a pharmacist and senior director of the Center for Public Readiness and Response at CHOP, which houses the regional Poison Control Center for eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

To avoid unintentional therapeutic errors, as they’re classified by poison control, Trella said reading the labels on the back of medications is critical. Most will have dosage ranges for children based on their ages and weights.

“It’s also important to understand the difference between a [milliliter] and a teaspoon, and make sure that we are using measuring devices so that we can give that more precise dosing for our smaller kids,” she said.

Amin said brand-name medications like Tylenol and Motrin might be popular, but the generic versions of those medicines are just as effective.

“If you happen to go to a store and you see ibuprofen for children or ibuprofen for infants or acetaminophen, it’s the exact same thing,” he said. “Make sure you grab that bottle, because that will also help you out.”

What Amin said people should not do is compound their own mixtures of pain relievers for their children using medications meant for adults. While a pharmacist or health care provider has the training to do this safely, the average person does not, he said.

“Out of desperation, parents are willing to do anything,” Amin said.

When it comes to managing fevers, coughs, body aches, and pains, Trella said it’s important to remember that pharmacologic interventions aren’t always necessary.

“There’s reasons to have a fever, and sometimes that fever is good to have, because that’s your body fighting off an illness,” she said. “We don’t need to run and chase the [thermometer] number. Are they well enough, kind of acting okay and not too miserable? If that’s the case, let that fever be and just continue to monitor your child.”

Philadelphia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said nonpharmacologic remedies can be effective when helping a child through an illness. It’s easy to forget that, she said, as most people have become so reliant on readily available pain relievers.

“It’s important to remember that those are comfort medications. The child will recover whether or not they take them,” Bettigole said. “There are old-fashioned things we can do to help bring down a fever, like using cool compresses, making sure we’re not over swaddling babies. It’s more of a comfort issue than a safety issue for most kids.”

For people still on the hunt for these medications, Amin said they should be considerate of others and not buy more than they need.

“If anything, help a friend or neighbor who has a kid that’s looking for this medication,” he said.

If you suspect a poisoning, call the National Poison Control Center hotline at 1-800-222-1222 to be connected with experts at the nearest regional center.

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