NEWS

Tylenol and Motrin Shortages Leave Parents Searching For Options

Child receives medication orally through a dropper

rudi_suardi / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Children's Tylenol and Motrin are in short supply due to an increased demand resulting from the high number of respiratory illnesses.
  • If you can find them, parents and caregivers can use generic forms of children's acetaminophen and ibuprofen as they are just as effective in treating fever and pain.
  • Parents should not give their children aspirin as a substitute for acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Most parents know what to expect during the flu season. Runny noses, sore throats, and fevers are all part of navigating this time of year. One big difference this year is being able to find medication to help alleviate the symptoms our children are experiencing.

If you’re the parent of a sick child, you’re most likely visiting many local pharmacies and stores only to find bare shelves and scarce supplies. You're not alone. The so-called 'tripledemic' of RSV, flu, and COVID-19 is creating a supply and demand issue for the popular brands Tylenol and Motrin, along with other pain relievers. You might be wondering what you can do when over-the-counter medication is hard to find.

UPDATE: January 23. 2023

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking steps to improve the supply of children's pain relievers. The FDA issued guidelines for compounding certain ibuprofen oral suspension products. This is only for hospitals and health systems to administer and not for at-home use. According to the FDA, compounding refers to the mixing, combining, or altering of ingredients to make a medication specific to a patient's needs. While there is also a shortage of acetaminophen oral suspension as well, the FDA says it is not addressing that at this time. The FDA says it's working with drug makers to increase supply in response to the high demand.

Children's Pain Relievers in Short Supply

Anecdotal accounts from parents and caregivers detail a concerning lack of the children's pain and fever medication acetaminophen and ibuprofen. The Food & Drug Administration is not currently reporting a shortage of these medications. But as of November 30, 2022, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) lists shortages of prescription liquid ibuprofen.

In a statement to Verywell Family, drugmaker Johnson & Johnson says they are experiencing high demand for its popular brands Tylenol and Motrin, but there isn't a widespread shortage. The company cites the "extremely challenging" cold and flu season.

"We recognize this may be challenging for parents and caregivers, and are doing everything we can to make sure people have access to the products they need," the statement from Johnson & Johnson says. "[That includes] maximizing our production capacity, running our sites 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and continuously shipping out products. We will continue to partner with retailers to provide these products to consumers.”

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) acknowledges parents may have to visit more than one location to find what they need. In a press release, they are cautioning parents against buying more pediatric painkillers than they need.

“We want to further reiterate the importance of responsible purchasing practices," the CHPA says. "Media coverage surrounding this issue could prompt parents to stock up if a product shortage is perceived or feared—which could eventually cause widespread supply shortages for U.S. consumers.”

Prescription Medication Also Scarce

It is not just pediatric pain and fever medication that is scarce, Tamiflu and amoxicillin have been in short supply. As of December 8, 2022, there has been a reported shortage of amoxicillin. While the Food & Drug Administration has not declared an official shortage of flu antivirals, GoodRx, a digital health care platform, has been tracking filled prescriptions for Tamiflu and its generic oseltamivir throughout the 2022-2023 flu season, and the data shows prescription fills are higher this year than they have been since 2013.

On December 21, 2022, the Biden Administration announced it is releasing doses of Tamiflu from the Strategic National Stockpile to respond to the high demand. States can now request supplies of the prescription medication from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Unprecedented Early Rise in Respiratory Viruses

Chances are you've already heard about the so-called 'tripledemic' referring to three major viruses all circulating at the same time. According to Yale Medicine, RSV cases started hitting record levels early in the fall, which isn't usually seen until December or January. But they say, those cases seem to be leveling off. So in comes the flu and COVID. Those case are on the rise as we head into winter.

Masking and distancing during the COVID pandemic resulted in an impressive drop in the transmission of seasonal respiratory viruses among both children and adults. The extended quarantine period also shielded many children from viruses they would have caught during school.

“Children born during the pandemic were not exposed to these viruses at all, until now," says Hillary O’Boyle, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU. "Their immune systems were 'naive' to these viruses, which means they had not yet built any immunity to them.”

She went on to say parents were also not likely to have been exposed during pregnancy, so young babies were born with less protection from antibodies against these viruses than what is typical. As these babies are being exposed to these viruses for the first time, it is hitting them harder because their immune systems are less prepared. Additionally, children are getting several of these viruses at the same time, leading to more severe illnesses.

What Alternatives Do Parents Have For Kids Pain Relief?

Generic children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen is just as good as the name brand, and it may be slightly easier to find. Dr. O’Boyle recommends if the child is acting okay and is able to drink, the height of the temperature does not matter much. 

“Fever doesn't necessarily require treatment if the child is not in pain and is still able to stay hydrated," says Dr. O’Boyle. "Encourage plenty of fluids, and try cooling methods such as a cold washcloth or a fan.”

It's also an important reminder for parents to remember that fever is the body's response to infection—it's working to fight it off. “It is not necessarily a bad thing or something we need to be afraid of unless it is leading to significant discomfort or dehydration in the child," adds Dr. O'Boyle. 

Substituting one kind of medication for another isn't the right answer either. “Parents should not buy traditional combination cough and cold medications for young children without checking with a medical professional first," says Christine Cadiz, PharmD, health sciences clinical associate professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences. "Many of these contain products that should not be used for young kids."

Adult medication should never be given to children without first consulting with your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider. "[You need] to ensure correct doses are given and that the product is not harmful to kids," says Dr. Cadiz. "Be sure NOT to give Aspirin in kids as a substitute for acetaminophen or ibuprofen."

For older kids who can swallow pills, parents can try purchasing tablets or gel capsules as long as they are using the correct dose, Dr. Cadiz advises. These versions of pain relief may be easier to find. For younger kids, chewable versions may be available if liquid acetaminophen or ibuprofen is out of stock. 

If you're desperate to help ease your child's pain asking a friend or neighbor if they have any liquid pain relievers is also a good option. “While prescription medications should not be shared with others, it would be okay to ask a friend if they have ibuprofen or acetaminophen that can be used, especially when needed to relieve a fever," Dr. Cadiz adds. "Of course, parents should call their pediatrician if there are signs of serious illness.”

There are some home remedies you can also try to ease your child's symptoms. A lukewarm bath or cool compresses can help relieve fever. Sore throats can be soothed with warm water and honey, popsicles, throat numbing sprays, or cough drops. Steamy showers can help with relieving the discomfort of congestion.

What This Means For You

Parents hate to see their children in pain or uncomfortable. It's natural to want to make them feel better. But during this unprecedented season of illness, children's pain relievers and fever reducers are scarce and store shelves are empty. It's a simple supply and demand issue. If you are having trouble finding brands like Tylenol and Motrin, generic forms of acetaminophen and ibuprofen are just as effective. Also, you could try alternative options for reducing fevers, easing pain, and providing comfort to your sick child. Speak with your child's pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns.

 

15 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Desai RJ, Sarpatwari A, Dejene S, et al. Comparative effectiveness of generic and brand-name medication use: A database study of US health insurance claims. PLoS Med. 2019;16(3):e1002763. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002763

  2. Macdonald S. Aspirin use to be banned in under 16 year olds. BMJ. 2002;325(7371):988c-9988. doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7371.988/c

  3. Yale Medicine. 'Tripledemic:' what happens when flu, RSV, and COVID-19 cases collide.

  4. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA issues guidance to help increase supply of ibuprofen oral suspension products in hospitals and health systems.

  5. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Compounding and the FDA: Questions and Answers.

  6. Food and Drug Administration. Drug Shortages Database

  7. American Society of Health System Pharmacists. Drug shortage detail: ibuprofen oral suspension(Prescription products only).

  8. Consumer Healthcare Products Association. Update on children’s pain reliever products.

  9. American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Amoxicillin oral presentations.

  10. GoodRx. Live updates: tracking the RSV, flu, and COVID ‘Tripledemic’.

  11. Baier M, Knobloch MJ, Osman F, Safdar N. Effectiveness of mask-wearing on respiratory illness transmission in community settings: a rapid review. Disaster med public health prep. 2022:1-8. doi:10.1017/dmp.2021.369

  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RSV in infants and young children.

  13. American Academy of Pediatrics. Treating your child's fever.

  14. Geddes L. The fever paradox. New Scientist. 2020;246(3277):39-41. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(20)30731-4

  15. Food and Drug Administration. Use caution when giving cough and cold products to kids.

By Taayoo Murray
Taayoo is a New York City-based writer and boy mom who writes about family, health & wellness, and lifestyle. Her work has been published in national publications like Parents, Health, Huffpost Well, Verywell Health, Yahoo Life, Business Insider, New York Times Kids, Giddy, and others.