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Pharmacies are seeing a run on cold medicine now that people are socializing again

As Americans start to return to their normal routines, sales of flu and cold medicine have started to surge.
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Germs are back. As Americans start to return to their normal routine — including socializing, dining out and travel — sales of flu and cold medicine have started to surge.

After a year of record-low sales of cold and flu therapies during the pandemic, when consumers were mostly homebound or wearing masks when out in public, retail pharmacies such as CVS and Rite Aid are expecting a surge in sales as more people come into contact with pathogens they previously avoided — and come down with the sniffles.

“The issue that we have right now is that the most profitable part of our business has been under extreme duress,” said Heyward Donigan, CEO of Rite Aid, in an earnings call last month. “And not just has been but still is. And that's the cough, cold and flu and all the acute business that has not yet come back.”

Covid precautions led to a $5 million drop in prescription transactions revenue during last year's flu season, drug price tracker GoodRx said in a May earnings call. Walgreens said the low level of flu incidences led to a 3.5 percent drop in cough and cold medicine store sales between the first three months of 2021 compared to the same time period last year.

Prescriptions for Tamiflu fell from 200,000 in before the pandemic to just 200 last year, Rite Aid reported in March. The company also noted a decline of nearly 40 percent in its cough, cold and flu remedies business from the year before.

Rite Aid said prescriptions for Tamiflu fell from 200,000 before the pandemic to just 200 last year.

Travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders played a critical role in halting the spread of the coronavirus and, by proxy, the cold and flu, said William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. But, more importantly, school closings limited the spread of the cold and flu among kids who then normally bring it home, he said.

“That did not give the influenza virus the opportunity to move through the population the way it normally does,” he said. “Now since we’re reopening again, the flu virus and other respiratory viruses will take advantage. We’ll have respiratory viruses back again, but how severe?”

Already, retail pharmacies are seeing a rebound in cold and flu sales as respiratory virus cases are on the rise.

“In the recent months, weeks even, particularly with the scale-up of the respiratory syncytial virus as well as the recognition of other viruses, we're seeing growth,” said Laxman Narasimhan, CEO Of Reckitt Benckiser Group, which manufactures Mucinex, in an earnings call on Tuesday. Mucinex sales tracked higher in June than last year and even higher in the early weeks of July, Narasimhan said.

Megan Boyd, a spokesperson for Walgreens, told NBC News in an emailed statement that the company has seen a slight increase in demand for cold and flu remedies in the past week and a greater increase in demand year-over-year for the past several months. Karen Lynch, CEO of CVS Health, said in a June earnings call that prescription volumes were on the rebound as early as April and May.

“As mobility picks back up, one of the unfortunate, just simple realities is we'll get back into cold and flu season,” said Henry Walter, president North America at Mondelez International, which manufactures Halls cough drops, in a company presentation last month.

Covid and its behavioral fallout has already altered long-term forecasts for cold and flu product sales, which are expected to decline from $9.5 billion last year to $9.4 billion by 2025, according to an April report from market research firm Mintel. The market’s growth or decline will depend on the adoption of remote work, hybrid schooling and new masking and hygiene behaviors, it said.

While cold and flu sales will bounce back this year from last year's record decline, they could slow down again as Covid variants take hold, said Bob Sanders, executive vice president of health care at market research firm IRI Worldwide, which tracks consumer packaged goods.

“The key here is mobility,” he said. “It really depends on where the pandemic will lead us moving forward.”