Looking for medicine for a sick kid? You may be out of luck

Empty shelves at a grocery store
Empty shelves at Cub Foods in Stillwater, Minn., on Monday where children’s medicine is usually stocked.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

If you have young kids, you’re probably seeing a lot more of them lately around the house when they’re supposed to be in school or at daycare. What some call a “tripledemic,” the flu, RSV and COVID-19 are all hitting at the same time.

“As a parent to kids myself it seems like we've had a kid home, you know, missing school the majority of the last month or so. It seems like the poor kids are going through the wringer with all the illnesses this season," said Jason Miller, who in addition to taking care of his kids, oversees more than three dozen Coborns-Cashwise pharmacies where some over-the-counter medicine is in short supply.

“A lot of people have been sick and that's really what's driving these shortages,” Miller said.

Liquid acetaminophen and ibuprofen, often branded as Tylenol and Motrin, have become hard to find. The liquid suspension forms of those non-prescription medicines are most commonly given to children too young to take pills.

“We are overwhelmed in primary care. Our urgent cares are full,” said Dr. Shannon Neale, a family medicine physician at HealthPartners and Park Nicollet. 

Neale said she understands why parents frequently reach for acetaminophen and ibuprofen when their kids are sick, but she says in many cases those drugs are not as necessary as many people think.

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“We have all lived many years without having the luxury of having these medications around, even Advil and Tylenol,” Neale said. “So it is definitely possible to get through cold and flu season without having a plethora of different suspensions out there.”

Neale advised parents to turn to home remedies if they can’t find kids medicine at the store.

“Things for cough that people could try would be to use some honey mixed with some lemon water — like one or two teaspoons of honey mixed in with some warm water with a little bit of lemon in it,” Neale said. “The caution with honey though is that it should not be used for children under the age of one.”

Other remedies on the list include: gargling with salt water, taking hot showers, using humidifiers, extra pillows and drinking plenty of water.

“All of those things can help you feel better and also fight off the virus better,” Neale said.

Experts also recommend flu shots and getting up to date on COVID-19 boosters. And they say if you're sick, stay home. 

Beth Thielen, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, warned parents against trying to use smaller portions of adult medicine for children amid the shortage.

“I don't want people to be going off kind of doing this on their own,” Thielen said. “One of the key factors for children is that the dosing is really dependent on their size, and there's a risk of either overdosing or underdosing. And probably the most dangerous would be overdosing medicines. We don't want to do that."

If necessary, healthcare providers can write prescriptions for children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen ensuring the dosage is appropriate, Thielen noted.

Jason Miller said he expects kids' medicines to be scarce for the next couple of months, through the  end of the cold and flu season. The best way to keep kids and adults comfortable is to keep them from getting sick in the first place, he said, noting somewhat nervously that there’s a proven strategy for that.

“Masking, and, you know, that’s become such a taboo topic,” he said. “But  we’ve seen reduced infections in the seasons where we masked and socially distanced.”