Skip to content

Experts blame 'Tripledemic' for medicines shortage


Packets of generic medication

CAN’T get hold of Lemsip? Is the 'tripledemic' to blame?

Patients have struggled to buy basic over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, including throat lozenges and cough mixtures, while pharmacies have also seen severe shortages in the popular children’s brand of painkiller, Calpol. 

Professor Liz Breen, an expert in health supply chains at the University of Bradford, said: “Medicine shortages have been common in previous years due to supply chain issues stemming from global events, such as the pandemic or the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“But these aren’t the same reasons for shortages of non-prescription products.

“It’s down to a combination of three factors. Firstly, the 'tripledemic' - which reflects higher than expected cases of Covid, Flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) one of the many viruses that cause infection of the ear, nose, throat and lungs - plus an increasing demand for these medicines along with an already challenged medicines supply chains. 

Professor Liz Breen headshot

Pictured above: Professor Liz Breen 

Figures show one in 40 people are currently infected with Covid in England, while hospital admissions for flu soared over the Christmas period.

Professor Breen said: “There have also been outbreaks of Strep A and seasonal illnesses.”

Canada and the USA are experiencing similar shortages, with some pharmacies in the US rationing sales of certain medicines. 

Professor Breen added: “Worries about shortages can then lead to stockpiling and panic buying, which worsens the situation.

“It’s a simple case of demand outweighing supply at the moment. Manufacturers say the stock does exist and they are working to respond to higher than usual demand.

“There is no evidence that it’s down to inadequate Government planning.”

Another reason could be that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, mask-wearing and increased awareness of hand hygiene protected us against common germs and viruses. 

Professor Breen said: “This meant cold and flu remedies were less in demand and so, if pharmacies and supermarkets based their forecasts on last winter, it’s likely they may have ordered lower levels of stock for this winter, not knowing a surge of seasonal illnesses would occur.”

How you can beat the shortages:

Dr Zoe Edwards, Research Fellow in Medicine Optimisation at the University of Bradford, said: “We want people to self-manage their symptoms, but if over-the-counter medications are unavailable, they are more likely to go to their GP at a time when the NHS is already over-burdened and may incur longer waits.

“If you can't get hold of your usual cold and flu remedies, ask your pharmacist for advice about alternatives.

“People can be very loyal to brands. Parents in particular depend on Calpol because they trust the brand. But there are often non-branded alternatives which contain the same ingredients. 

“For example, paracetamol and vitamin C are often the main ingredients in cold and flu remedies. 

“You should also make sure you get your Covid and flu vaccines to prevent serious illness. Ideally, you should have the flu jab in autumn or early winter before flu season kicks in.

“If you are very unwell, call 111 for advice in the first instance.”

Research fellow in medicine optimisation

Pictured above: Dr Zoe Edwards

Back to news from 2023