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Common Drugs That Are in Short Supply Now

Plus: Tips for what to do when many medications are missing from pharmacy shelves

pills from a prescription bottle in a man's hand
Boston Globe / Getty Images

Doctor’s offices and hospitals are filling up with coughing, sneezing, feverish patients as the U.S. contends with a wave of winter illnesses. Meanwhile, some of the medications used to treat the bugs going around are hard to come by.

For example, an earlier-than-expected influenza surge is causing shortages in some areas of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), an antiviral medication that can help keep a mild case of the flu from progressing into something more serious. Nearly every state in the U.S. is reporting high levels of flu activity right now, and so far, at least 150,000 Americans have been hospitalized with the illness — the highest number we’ve seen this time of year in a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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At the same time, pharmacies are running low on some antibiotics — including amoxicillin for pediatric patients — used to treat bacterial complications (ear infections, pneumonia) that can arise following a viral infection. And stores in some regions can’t keep common pain relievers in stock.

The list doesn’t end there. Everything from Adderall to lidocaine to popular diabetes medications is in scarce supply. So are drugs used for anesthesia and fluids that fill IVs.

“The shortages span the gamut from things that are nice to have to things that are utterly necessary,” says Megan Ranney, M.D., an emergency physician and deputy dean at Brown University’s School of Public Health.

Drug shortages are not new

Patients may be feeling the pinch now, but drug shortages are nothing new, explains Stephen W. Schondelmeyer, a professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and co-principal investigator for the Resilient Drug Supply Project at the school’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). 150 to 200 medications are not available in the U.S. at any given time, he adds. “On the one hand, that seems like a fairly small number,” Schondelmeyer says. “But to individual consumers, it can be everything.”

These shortages can happen for a number of reasons, ranging from high demand — like what we’re seeing right now with strapped supplies of amoxicillin and winter medicine-cabinet must-haves — to problems with supply, if a manufacturing plant closes or has issues with contaminants. Another cause: Some medications become too expensive for drugmakers to produce, Ranney says, “and it hurts the patient as a result.”

Shortages can have serious consequences

For some individuals, drug shortages can have little to no impact — nonemergency procedures can be delayed, or another drug can sub in just fine. Others, however, are left without options.

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Millions of people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, are struggling to find an alternative to Adderall as the shortage stretches on, CIDRAP reports. More than 4 percent of adults in the U.S. have ADHD, and the shortage could continue into 2023.

Using the example of an antiseizure medication, Ranney says, “that may be the only medication that works well for that patient. And so when that medication is running short, they don't have another alternative that's going to control their seizures.”

Even if there are other medication alternatives, Ranney points out that switching a patient to a new prescription can be problematic. “It forces physicians, nurses and pharmacists to do calculations that they may not be used to or to try to figure out what the best substitute is. And it puts patients at risk of potential errors, particularly for kids where we do weight-based dosing,” she says.

Another potential issue: insurance coverage. “Not every patient's insurance is going to cover every medication,” Ranney notes.

What can patients do?

If a drug that you normally take — or find out you need to take — turns up short, there are some things you can do.

First, ask your health care provider or pharmacist if the shortage appears to be temporary or if it will be long-term, Schondelmeyer says. “Because that affects your alternatives as well. In the short term, we might be able to find other medications that can treat you temporarily until we get the preferred drug back. But if the preferred drug is totally out of the market, then you have to find a totally new strategy for treating the patient's situation,” he says.

If your doctor does need to switch you from one medication to another, ask how it will affect your insurance coverage and whether the new drug will cause any new side effects or interfere with anything else you’re taking.

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A few other tips, especially when it comes to seasonal illnesses: If you come down with the flu and are prescribed Tamiflu, ask your doctor for a printed copy of the prescription, in case the first pharmacy you go to doesn’t have it, Ranney suggests. (Unfortunately, there are no good alternatives to Tamiflu, which is a time-sensitive medication that needs to be taken in the first few days of the illness, she adds.)

And while the U.S. currently isn’t experiencing a shortage of the COVID-19 antiviral Paxlovid, Ranney says, it’s not a bad idea to get that prescription printed, too — just in case. Similar to flu, the U.S. is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“The biggest thing, really, is that it reminds us that our health care system remains quite fragile,” Ranney says. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tracks drug shortages and works with manufacturers to resolve them. Still, Schondelmeyer says, a better system is needed to help prevent them in the first place.

For now, Ranney says the best thing individuals can do is to lower their risk of needing as many of these medications as possible. “[It’s a reminder to] folks to be sure to get their flu shot and their COVID booster if they haven't. The bivalent booster is working quite well for older adults to reduce the risk of hospitalization,” she says. Wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings is another thing that can help you stay healthy this winter, Ranney adds.​

5 common drugs that are in short supply right now

  1. Adderall
  2. Albuterol sulfate (used in inhalers for patients with lung diseases like asthma)
  3. Amoxicillin (oral powder suspension)
  4. Dulaglutide (Trulicity), used to treat diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  5. Semaglutide (Ozempic and WEGOVY), used to treat diabetes and obesity 

Although there currently is not a nationwide shortage of Tamiflu, according to the FDA’s list, the agency says it is aware that there may be “localized shortages where demand is especially high.” Tamiflu, however, is on the drug shortage list kept by American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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