Published February 17, 2023
The United States is currently experiencing a higher than usual number of respiratory illnesses, including the common cold, influenza (flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and other viruses. With many children being affected, there has been an increased need for liquid forms of medicine to help reduce fever and pain. These medicines include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (e.g., Advil, Motrin).
Parents, however, are having trouble finding these over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that can be purchased without a prescription. Lately, these products have been out of stock in pharmacies (in many parts of the country) and online. This often leads to parents scrambling to find ways to obtain the medicine or other ways to treat their child’s symptoms. Experts say the shortage is not related to manufacturing issues, but that companies cannot keep up with the demand. Also, if the medicine is available, some parents may buy more than they need so they have enough for the next time.
Here’s what you can do: If you need liquid acetaminophen or ibuprofen to treat your child’s cold or flu symptoms, consider these recommendations:
- Look for a generic product. The medicine might be available in generic form. If you are looking for it on store shelves, look for a store-brand product. Store brands often use the generic name of the medicine. For example, if you are looking for Tylenol, look for acetaminophen. You can also look at the Drug Facts label on the back of the carton for the name acetaminophen. If you are looking for Advil or Motrin, look for ibuprofen. Be sure the label also indicates it is for children.
- Borrow a supply. A friend or relative may have a supply of the medicine you need. Be sure it is the children’s formulation and is not expired. Do not use medicine that is outdated.
- Consider a different formulation. Some children may be able to use non-liquid acetaminophen or ibuprofen. For example, chewable tablets, a powdered form that can be placed on your child’s tongue, or suppositories may be available. In some cases, children over 6 years who can swallow a tablet may take the lowest adult dose. Be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before giving your child an adult form of medicine.
- Use alternative methods of fever reduction. Consider using cold compresses (i.e., a wet washcloth, an ice pack) to help reduce a fever. Also, be sure your child stays hydrated by drinking water and other liquids such as juice, Pedialyte, or Gatorade.
- Do NOT use social media for advice. Stay away from videos and social media outlets that show you how to make your own liquid forms of medicine from adult tablets or capsules. This can lead to serious mistakes, including giving your child too much medicine.
- Do NOT give cough and cold combination products to children younger than 2 years. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are often found in cough and cold medicines. However, these products contain other medicines and according to the US Food and Drug Administration, should not be used in children younger than 2 years. For children older than 2 years, talk to your child’s pediatrician before giving the combination product to your child.
- Do NOT use aspirin products instead of acetaminophen or ibuprofen. A rare, serious condition known as Reye’s Syndrome can occur when aspirin is given to a child who has a viral infection. Reye’s Syndrome can cause brain and liver damage.
- Do NOT use adult products unless directed by a healthcare professional. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are dosed based on your child’s weight. Never try to estimate the dosage of adult medicine to give to your child. Doing so can lead to serious errors. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist for more options. Ask for an oral dosing syringe, spoon, or cup that can accurately measure smaller doses, and never use household utensils or measuring spoons to measure doses.
Finally, scientific evidence shows that vaccinating children for flu and COVID-19 reduces the chance of them becoming seriously ill or even dying.