A resurgence of colds and flu has combined with Covid-19 to boost sales of over-the-counter medicines, providing a boost for consumer health groups that produce remedies for coughing and sneezing populations.
“We’ve seen a strong and prolonged cold and flu season this year, which has been widespread,” said Tobias Hestler, chief financial officer at Haleon, the FTSE 100 consumer health company spun out this year from drugmaker GSK.
The company, one of the world’s largest makers of over-the-counter medicines, said sales of its respiratory treatments were up 30 per cent year on year in the third quarter, “driven by both increased consumption from cold and flu incidence . . . as well as Covid symptoms”, even ahead of the winter.
Medics have attributed the rise in colds and flu to people mixing more indoors after two years of pandemic restrictions. Bruce Charlesworth, chief medical officer at Reckitt Benckiser, said there was “lower immunity” across populations as a result of the past curbs on movement.
The combination of seasonal illnesses with Covid prompted Haleon — which produces Theraflu cold relief products, Robitussin cough medicine, Flonase nasal spray, and Otrivin and Contac decongestants — in November to upgrade its revenue growth guidance for the year.
For rival Reckitt, which makes Mucinex, Strepsils and Lemsip, the rapid spread of illness has helped compensate for declines in the use of its disinfectants Dettol and Lysol, which sold in large quantities earlier in the pandemic.
Households are also using over-the-counter medicines to tackle Covid-19 itself, which affects vaccinated people less seriously and whose recent strains have similar symptoms to colds and flu, according to Ryan Dullea, who heads Reckitt’s over-the-counter business.
Dullea said that while sales had been strong so far in 2022, Covid-19 had made it harder to predict the course of respiratory diseases in the rest of the current season and beyond.
“We’re still trying to figure out how everything plays out, with the blurring of lines between Covid, and cold and flu symptoms,” he said.
But the pandemic had made “consumers more conscious of germs and illness”, he added. “There are more people who are not going into work and ‘toughing it out’.”
Companies such as Reckitt have been building up their consumer health businesses in the expectation that ageing populations and struggling national health systems will push more consumers towards medications that do not require prescriptions.
“The role of prevention and self-care is critical in protecting already overburdened healthcare systems,” said Charlesworth, adding that people should also take up the flu vaccination.
Sales of cold and flu medicines in the UK jumped 28 per cent by value to £288.5mn in the year to November 27 from a year earlier, according to Kantar.
Several countries have run short of antibiotics following the rise in infections but Dullea said his company’s supply chains had been able to keep pace with demand for non-prescription medicines.
Consumer groups have also invested in vitamins, minerals and supplements, which sold heavily in the acute phase of the pandemic but have since pulled back.
Another question is how far these categories may be affected by the squeeze on consumer finances resulting from inflation.
Hestler said consumers tended to be loyal to familiar brands to tackle colds and flu, but “we’ve seen that in certain categories there have been some channel shifts, [for example] buying smaller pack sizes, say through Dollar Stores”.
In early December, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported higher numbers of flu cases and hospitalisations than at the same point in any year for more than a decade, while the Australian flu season, which takes place earlier than those in the northern hemisphere, has been the worst since 2017.
In the UK, Conall Watson, consultant epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency, said in December that hospital admissions for flu were at their highest point since the 2017-2018 season.
The largest maker of cold and flu medicines globally is US-based Johnson & Johnson, followed by London-listed Haleon and Reckitt Benckiser, according to Euromonitor.