Student Well-Being

Children’s Medications Are in Short Supply. Should Schools Be Worried?

By Alyson Klein — December 20, 2022 3 min read
Vector Illustration of an opened prescription bottle with floating pills.
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Medications often used with children—including over-the-counter painkillers for those under 12—are in short supply, just as schools are struggling with soaring rates of influenza, respiratory viruses, and COVID-19.

It’s unclear at this point how extensively the problem has trickled down to school nurses’ offices, which sometimes dispense over-the-counter drugs for students, with permission from doctors and parents.

But the National Association of School Nurses suggests its members, as well as district and school leaders, keep a close eye on the situation.

Weathering the shortages may simply be about “being aware, being responsive, collaborating to make sure that the school health office has what it needs to take care of the students,” said Linda Mendonca, the president of the National Association of School Nurses.

Acting on that awareness could happen sooner than expected.

The dearth of painkillers for kids—such as Children’s Tylenol and Children’s Motrin—is so acute that CVS, a national pharmacy chain, has limited sales to two items per customer, a CVS spokeswoman said. Another chain, Walgreens, has taken a similar step, a spokesman said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., recently called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate the shortages.

If schools run out of the medications, it could impact learning time. A dose of a drug like Children’s Tylenol or Children’s Motrin may allow an elementary schooler with a headache or stomach cramps to return to class and finish the day, Mendonca said.

“We want to try to do everything we can to keep students in school and sitting in their seat in the classroom,” Mendonca said, though she added that nurses can also offer students feeling sick non-medical interventions, such as a hot compress or a chance to lie down.

Even when a student is too sick to stay at school, painkillers can keep them comfortable, and perhaps bring down a fever, while they wait for a parent or caregiver to pick them up, Mendonca added.

So far, Mendonca hasn’t heard many reports of schools running out of over-the-counter children’s pain medication. But that could be because many schools order for the entire year over the summer or just before the start of the school year. The 2022-23 school year isn’t even quite half over, she said, so many schools may still have supply left. Plus, many schools will soon be starting their winter breaks if they haven’t already.

Still, Mendonca cautioned nurses to carefully watch their stock of medications.

“With flu, RSV, COVID, all of these symptoms that students are having, schools certainly could be dispensing it a lot quicker and using more than what they might normally use,” she said. “I think that it’s important to be on top of that, and be monitoring your supply.”

Other drugs in short supply too

Schools, particularly at the elementary level, that are concerned about their supply may want to contact others in the district to see if they are able to share. A middle school, for instance, may not need as many doses of children’s painkillers because many of their students are old enough for adult versions of the drugs, which can often be given to those 12 and older.

It might even make sense, Mendonca said, for some school districts to consider ordering more doses of painkiller drugs sooner than they might otherwise, so that they don’t put themselves in a situation “where you’re without it due to the supply chain issue,” Mendonca said. District and school leaders should just be aware of the shortages in case the school nurse wants to order something outside of the normal cycle.

Over-the-counter painkillers for children aren’t the only drugs in short supply these days.

The FDA lists more than 100 current drug shortages, including albuterol, given to asthma patients, including many kids, and amoxicillin, an antibiotic frequently given to children. There has also reportedly been a shortage of Adderall, a drug used for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder that’s commonly prescribed to adults.

Though none of those drugs are used to treat the trio of viruses currently raging in schools, they might be prescribed to a student, brought to school, and given out by a school nurse, with the permission of a child’s doctor, parent, or caregiver, Mendonca said.

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Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.

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