If you’ve run out to the pharmacy or convenience store in the past few weeks looking for over-the-counter children’s medicine, like Motrin or Tylenol, to calm your little one’s pain or fever, you may have encountered sparse shelves. That’s because there’s a nationwide need and a nationwide children’s pain-relief and fever-reducing medicine shortage—thanks to what some are calling a “tripledemic” of the flu, COVID-19, and RSV.
With pediatric flu cases climbing, RSV hitting record numbers, and COVID-19 lingering, demand for children’s fever and pain reducers of acetaminophen and ibuprofen (Tylenol and Motrin by brand name) is extremely high. In fact, “sales of pediatric internal analgesics are up 65% compared to the same time last year” according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. It was also just reported that larger chain pharmacies including Walgreens and CVS are placing purchasing limits on the meds to help. But what can you do when the shortage hits home?
First, breathe. Second, do NOT head out and hoard unneeded medications. Then, continue reading. We spoke with Alice Ruscica, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics (in Emergency Medicine) at the Columbia University Medical Center to address questions parents and caregivers may have when facing the shortage. And, of course, we always recommend reaching out to your child’s pediatrician with any concerns about the health of your child.
What’s the difference between infant’s vs. children’s Tylenol and Motrin?
Infants and children’s medications are marketed and labeled differently because their concentrations are different. Dr. Ruscica explained, “There’s less medicine in infants Tylenol per milliliter than children’s because infants need less.” She stressed that medication dosing is weight based (milligrams per kilogram), so, “you could give a bigger kid infants Tylenol but they’d need to drink more to get the right dose than if they were taking children’s Tylenol.”
So yes, if you’re in a bind, you can use infants medication on your bigger kids—you will just need more.
Remember, do not use ibuprofen (Motrin) in children who are less than 6 months old unless your child’s doctor tells you to, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What about generic vs. brand name children’s Tylenol and Motrin?
If you usually have a preferred “go-to” over-the-counter fever remedy that isn’t available, pay attention to the key ingredients. “Generic versus brand name medications should not have significant differences in their ingredients. Store brand acetaminophen is the same as Tylenol, and store brand ibuprofen is the same as Motrin,” said Dr. Ruscica.
Can I give my child the adult formulation of Tylenol or Motrin?
Depending on your child’s weight, Dr. Ruscica says you could using liquid medication. “It doesn’t matter what formulation (infant, children’s, adult’s) it matters how many milligrams of medication a kid is getting, and that depends on their weight for correct dosing.” Parents or caregivers should talk to their pharmacist or pediatrician to ensure safe dosing for their children.
Are chewables any different than liquid?
As long as your child is old enough to safely chew and swallow chewable tablets, Dr. Ruscica said that children’s chewables are safe and are just a different mode of delivery with no real difference in the actual medication.
Can I give my child a lower dose of children’s Tylenol or ibuprofen?
If you’re in a bind and don’t have enough medication (like if you’re nearing the bottom of the bottle but may have close to enough left) you could theoretically give your child a lower dose than they need, though Dr. Ruscica said, “it would likely be less effective.”
Are there really any alternatives for fever and pain relief if I can’t find the medication?
There are some at home remedies for fever reduction and to keep kids more comfortable as their body fights viral infections. “You can do lukewarm baths and partially undress your kids to cool them down,” said Dr. Ruscica, but these methods are less effective than medication.
Anything else parents facing empty shelves should know?
Dr. Ruscica stressed that, “while these medication shortages are definitely frustrating, it’s not necessarily dangerous. Tylenol and Motrin bring fevers down which make kids more comfortable but they don’t do anything to make viral germs resolve any faster.” She added, “since fevers are a kid’s body’s way of helping them fight germs, they don’t usually cause harm.”
The biggest concerns when it comes to fevers caused by viruses are that children stay hydrated (have tears in their eyes, saliva in their mouths and are urinating as normal) and that there are no signs of struggling to breathe (like breathing quickly with chest retractions or breathing hard with their belly, neck pulling, or nostrils flaring out.)
And, she said, “The best way to keep kids safe and healthy this winter is to get them and your family members vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu.”