Ottawa

Sales of cold and flu meds way down since start of pandemic, say pharmacists

If you're having trouble remembering the last time you had a cold or flu, you're likely not alone, as pharmacies in Ottawa are reporting a significant drop in sales of medications for these usually common ailments since the start of the pandemic.

University of Ottawa virologist warns flu could hit harder than normal next year

Pharmacist Ahmed Ibrahim says sales of cold and flu medicine are down roughly 50 per cent this season at his Mooney's Bay Pharmasave in Ottawa.  (Supplied by Mooney's Bay Pharmasave  )

If you're having trouble remembering the last time you had a cold or flu, you're likely not alone, as pharmacies in Ottawa are reporting a significant drop in sales of medications for these usually common ailments since the start of the pandemic.

"The demand is really low," said Ahmed Ibrahim, pharmacist and owner of Mooney's Bay Pharmasave. "Sales of cold and flu meds at my store have decreased from previous years, probably by about 50 per cent."

Randy Little, co-owner of both the Green Street and Fallowfield Pharmasaves in Barrhaven, said he hasn't seen anything like this in his 20 years as a pharmacist. 

"The situation is certainly precedent setting," he said. "It's been up and down. At the beginning of the pandemic, I think there were a fair number of patients stockpiling somewhat, but in a good way, in case they had [cold and flu] symptoms."

Little suspects measures to prevent COVID-19 spread may have something to do with the seeming drop in the number of flus and colds.

"People just simply aren't congregating as they normally would be," he said, so "prime conditions for either the cold or flu virus to transmit, those situations aren't as prevalent right now, so perhaps we're seeing a bit less incidence of both flus and colds because of some of those factors." 

So what happens to all the unsold flu and cold medications that could expire before they leave store shelves? 

"It depends on each manufacturer and their return policy," said Ibrahim. "Some accept returns and pay you some of the costs, not the full amount. Some don't offer anything and in those situations, we safely discard the medication and lose the money."

Impact could be felt next flu season

The observations of pharmacists match the numbers Earl Brown, emeritus professor of virology at the University of Ottawa, has been tracking.

Brown said data collected by physicians as part of the Canada-wide Sentinel Practitioner Surveillance Network shows only 60 positive cases of influenza this season, compared to an average of 32,000 positives.

"Influenza season didn't show up this year," said Brown. "We're all doing distancing, handwashing and mask wearing, and that is very effective protection against catching respiratory infections."

'We're all doing distancing, handwashing and mask wearing, and that is very effective protection against catching respiratory infections,' says Dr. Earl Brown, emeritus professor of virology at the University of Ottawa. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

According to the federal government's FluWatch website, the number of people who chose to receive the influenza vaccine this season was similar to previous seasons. 

This year's drastic drop in positive cases could have an impact on next year's cold and flu season.

"The level of antibodies on average in people will drop somewhat," said Brown. "That means in general we may be a little more susceptible to colds next year. It's not going to be cataclysmic, but you'll expect the population to be a little bit less protected by our antibodies and therefore a little more susceptible to respiratory infections.

While there's been a significant drop in sales of cold and flu meds, Little said he has noticed sales are up in another area.

"We've seen an increase in sales of eye drops, typically the ones used as lubricants," he said, adding this is likely from people spending more time indoors staring at computer and TV screens.

Pharmacist Randy Little says he's noticed a boost in demand for eye drops during the pandemic.   (Supplied by Pharmasave)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Giacomo Panico

CBC Reporter and Host

You can reach Giacomo by email Giacomo.Panico@cbc.ca.

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