At first it was toilet paper. Then it was meat.
Now it’s antacids.
People who search for over-the-counter belly pacifiers online or in stores are finding that parts of the country cannot simply buy antacids like tums, pepcid, and the generic version famotidine. A few weeks ago Wegmans Food Markets took the step of restricting buyers to two packets of famotidine products per trip.
During a hoarding pandemic, this can be the most unexpected.
Americans are stressed out. They are concerned about the rising number of coronavirus cases. They care about their work. Distance learning is a nightmare, and grocery shopping is no walk in the park. Not to mention the elections. And now the holidays are coming. The result is that some people are experiencing “pandemic stomach,” acid-generating episodes that increase the demand for over-the-counter and prescription antacids.
And antacids are also popular with people who are new to indigestion or heartburn. People started stocking up on them after preliminary studies suggested that famotidine could relieve symptoms of the coronavirus. Another wave of purchases hit this fall when President Trump was under treatment for coronavirus and White House officials said he was given famotidine along with zinc and vitamin D.
For those in need of relief, the bottlenecks are insane.
When 24-year-old Maia Callahan, a young early education graduate who teaches families and teaches distance learning in Greenfield, Massachusetts, attempted to put her usual order of Pepcid in her online Stop & Shop shopping cart in early September, it said again and again that the product is out of stock.
“I thought, OK, I’m going to place an order through Amazon,” said Ms. Callahan, who has an autoimmune disease and has been taking medication to treat her heartburn since she was 17. “That was the worst. One of the heartburn drugs was three times as expensive as usual. I took Tums for two weeks.”
Doctors said when the quarantines were lifted this spring, they noticed more patients reporting symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux.
“I think part of that is the stress of everything that’s going on in the world,” said Dr. Lauren Bleich, a gastroenterologist in Acton, Massachusetts, about 25 miles northwest of Boston, who said she saw a 25 percent increase in patients reporting heartburn and similar symptoms.
But she also said that the coronavirus, which has uprooted people’s normal lives and forced many to work from home, has led to many “dietary indiscretions” that trigger these symptoms.
“We are more relaxed than before with alcohol, sweets or our comfort food,” said Dr. Pale. “And then there is a lack of activity or movement. Weight gain definitely contributes to heartburn and acid reflux. “
Another perpetrator appeared in early November.
“We had many people with upset stomachs, heartburn and indigestion related to the elections,” she said.
Dr. Atul Maini, the medical director of the Heartburn Center at St. Joseph’s Health in Syracuse, NY, said that while the specialized center did not see an increase in patients, it did see a huge difference between the patients it has treated since the coronavirus quarantines have been lifted.
“The heartburn patients were now very anxious and depressed,” he said. “Something else had changed.”
Companies that make over-the-counter drugs are trying to meet demand.
“We are aware that there may be supply shortages,” said a spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline, which manufactures Tums, in an email.
However, for some antacids, the surge in demand may be linked to various preliminary studies suggesting that famotidine, the main ingredient in Pepcid, may reduce symptoms of the coronavirus.
In the spring, some patients with Covid-19 at Northwell Health in the New York City area received intravenous famotidine as part of a clinical trial following reports of use in China. The study was halted in May as patient volumes decreased and no conclusions were drawn. An observational study published earlier this fall by Hartford Hospital in Connecticut found positive results were also seen in coronavirus patients given famotidine.
Of the roughly 900 Hartford Hospital patients treated for coronavirus this spring, 83 were given famotidine at some point during their hospital stay. Those who received famotidine had lower hospital death rates and needed less help breathing a ventilator, the hospital said in its research report.
Still, the medical community is cautious about early results. In late June, the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommended the use of famotidine unless it was done in a clinical trial due to insufficient data.
Even before the preliminary research reports were published, demand for famotidine and Pepcid had risen sharply after the Food and Drug Administration asked companies to stop selling all forms of the heartburn drug Zantac in April and recommended consumers take it over the counter have version known as ranitidine, stop that. Small amounts of a carcinogenic chemical have been found in samples of the drug.
As consumers and doctors switched from Zantac to generic famotidine and pepcid, drug makers struggled to keep up. Some manufacturers reported drug shortages to the FDA earlier this year.
Johnson & Johnson, makers of Pepcid, did not respond to a request for comment. In July, company executives announced that US over-the-counter drug sales rose 30 percent in the second quarter, driven by strong demand for Tylenol, Pepcid, and other adult products.
For those who have taken Pepcid or generic versions of Famotidine, the past few months have been a struggle.
“I got a bottle in February but haven’t had one since,” said Mackenzie Doyle, a 21-year-old student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who is taking Pepcid with prescription strength to treat her immune disease. It will also be difficult to find over-the-counter Pepcid this spring, she said. When she visited her parents in Alabama during the spring break, Pepcid was sold out in the four stores she visited.
“When the first round of panic buying went on, it was impossible to find Pepcid,” said Ms. Doyle, who eventually found a generic famotidine at Walgreens and took double the dose to reach her prescription strength.
Ms. Doyle admits she has mixed feelings about the pre-studies on famotidine and coronavirus. While assisting the research, she wonders if the names of the drugs used could be withheld until more became known.
And then there are the just-in-case hoarders.
“They make me a little angry,” said Ms. Doyle. “There are so many people who have my immune disorder and who are worse than me and who need these drugs to stay alive. Having people buy it and keep it in their bathroom cabinet and never open the bottle makes me nervous. “