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More children are being sickened by RSV and flu this year than in recent years. PeopleImages/Getty Images
  • The FDA and manufacturers are reporting shortages of key medications for children this holiday season.
  • Flu and RSV has spiked in young children this winter.
  • Experts say there are steps parents can take to help young children even if they have difficulty finding medication at drugstores.
  • The Biden Administration said Dec. 21 that they will release flu medication from the national stockpile to help with shortages.

​As the holiday season has arrived, so have many winter illnesses like the common cold and seasonal flu.

And this rise in cases is hitting children especially hard.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with parents and pharmacists are reporting that medications to treat children’s ear infections, sore throats, influenza, and common upper respiratory illnesses are becoming hard to find.

Experts believe that this problem is due to increased demand for medications as children have become ill earlier in cold and flu season than expected.

This week both CVS and Walgreens confirmed they will limit the sale of certain children’s medication. Walgreens announced that people buying fever-reducing medications for children will not be able to buy more than six online.

CVS announced a two-product limit of children’s pain-relief medications both in stores and online, according to the Associated Press.

The high number of flu cases are also leading to shortages of medication for adults.

This week the Biden administration announced they will release the flu medication Tamiflu from the national stockpile to deal with shortages.

The rationing of medication comes as cases of flu and RSV are rising rapidly in the U.S, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“We have had a record number of RSV and influenza hospitalizations nationwide this fall,” says Dr. James Antoon, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Divisions of Pediatric Hospital Medicine at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Antoon attributes the increase due to a dramatic decline in RSV, influenza, and other respiratory viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a result, there are a large number of children less than three years old who have never been exposed to RSV and influenza, and the pool of susceptible children with no underlying natural immunity to these viruses is much larger this year than years past.”

CDC estimated that this season there have been 15 million illnesses due to influenza. The CDC also reports that in multiple US regions there has been an increase in RSV detection and emergency department visits. Historical data suggests that there are approximately 2.1 million outpatient visits due to RSV in children younger than 5 years old.

“Locally and nationally, pediatricians are experiencing a huge surge in upper respiratory infections – from a high amount of respiratory viruses including one of the worst influenza seasons we’ve seen in about a decade to the worst RSV surge in years,” says Dr. Alok Patel, Pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health.

Patel says, “we’ve seen an overwhelming amount of upper respiratory infections in all levels, from outpatient cases to hospitalized children needing oxygen support to critically ill children in the ICU needing further intervention and neither I or my colleagues have ever seen such an early, rapid rise in RSV-associated hospitalizations in young infants and toddlers.”

According to prescribing data, Tamiflu, the prescription medication for treating influenza, is seeing an increase compared to previous years.

The current prescription fill rate for this medication through early December was equivalent to the rate that is traditionally seen at the peak of the influenza season usually in later December and January.

This increase in Tamiflu use is causing shortages in this medication, say experts.

This is a serious problem for young kids as Tamiflu is currently the only medication approved by the FDA for the treatment of influenza in children less than five years of age.

While antibiotics can’t treat a virus, they can help secondary bacterial infections that can develop after that initial illness.

This winter there are reports that common antibiotics, like amoxicillin, are in increased demand which has led to shortages of these vital medications, according to data from the FDA.

“Bacterial infections, such as ear infections and pneumonias, can occur during or after viral infections and given the large number of RSV and flu infections this season there is likely an increase in these secondary infections as well,” Antoon tells Healthline.

Experts stress that antibiotics should not be used to treat viruses since they will not help these conditions.

Patel reminds parents, “parents and caretakers should remember that the majority of upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses and resolve without the need for any antibiotics.”

In a statement by Tylenol, company executives said they understand that consumer demand is high but they say they are doing everything they can to ensure that people have access to the products they need.

Understandably, parents worry about not being able to provide medication for their children, especially when they are sick. However, health experts say that parents should not be alarmed, and medications may be available with assistance from your healthcare provider.

One of the first things that parents can do to help their children is to get them tested if they have symptoms of the cold, flu or COVID-19.

Understanding if your child has influenza, RSV, COVID-19, or another virus can prevent you from needing prescription antibiotics to take care of an illness.

The unnecessary use of antibiotics not only leads to additional infections but can lead to antibiotic resistance as well.

Antoon encourages prevention as a way for avoiding the need for medications in the first place.

“The best way to protect your child from getting sick this winter season is prevention. Vaccination is the best way to prevent getting seriously ill from influenza and COVID. If your child hasn’t been vaccinated for flu or vaccinated and boosted for COVID, now is the time.”

There is no vaccine available for RSV.

Antoon says, “if the pharmacies in your area do not have the medicine, talk to your doctor about what alternative formulations, such as chewable or crushable tablets, or medications, such as second-line antibiotics, may be used.”

There are also remedies that parents can try that don’t include medications and may help relieve symptoms for sick kids.

While fevers should be controlled with anti-fever medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, other symptoms can be treated with more natural remedies.

Using a humidifier or even steam from a shower can assist with nasal congestion. Some advocates recommend using warm therapy such as a bath to help with body aches, and thicker substance foods such as honey to help with sore throats.

Honey should not be given to any children under the age of 12 months.

Patel strongly advises against using smaller doses of adult medications on children.

“Parents should not try and give smaller adult doses or attempt to treat infections on their own with another antibiotic, a leftover supply, or a relative or friend’s antibiotic. Antibiotic misuse is, on its own, a widespread and dangerous problem that should be avoided,” he told Healthline.

Dr. Rajiv Bahl, is an emergency medicine physician, board member of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians, and health writer. You can find him at RajivBahlMD.com.