allergy season has been a doozy so far. But while some 50 million Americans are hacking, sneezing and wheezing their way through it, the more than $3 billion market for over-the-counter allergy medicines is looking pretty healthy. While it's too early to tell, some pharmacy chains and drugmakers may profit handsomely from this insufferable -- and longer than usual -- season.
Experts explain that the unusually harsh winter followed by the warm, relatively dry spring means pollen counts are at near-record highs. The atmosphere's elevated carbon dioxide levels, courtesy of the world's ever-increasing fossil fuel consumption, are giving pollen-producing plants a growth boost, and the higher temperatures associated with global warming only add to the problem.
Allergy sufferers have a few options. They can stay indoors with closed windows, which isn't viable for most. They can get allergy shots, which are usually reserved for those with the most severe symptoms. Or they can take allergy medications to prevent and reduce their symptoms. There are plenty of treatments to chose from among the many corticosteroids, antihistamines and decongestants on the market today.
Corticosteroids help prevent and treat inflammation by blocking allergic reactions and are usually available only with a doctor's prescription. Antihistamines block histamine, an inflammatory chemical released by the immune system during allergic reactions, and are available both over-the-counter and by prescription. Decongestants relieve nasal and sinus congestion.
While some allergy sufferers take the time to visit the doctor, many end up just going to their local pharmacy to pick up the best over-the-counter relief they can find. The top 20 brands of OTC allergy medicines accounted for over $3.3 billion is sales in the past year in the U.S. (excluding sales at Walmart, which does not provide data), says SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm.
Don't Ignore Warnings on OTC Allergy Drugs
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), which, together with its McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit, is the U.S. allergy category leader, sold at least $792 million worth of OTC allergy products in the past year. Its top allergy-related brands include the antihistamines Benadryl and Zyrtec, the decongestant Sudafed, and the pain reliever Tylenol, according to SymphonyIRI Group.
And sales have room to improve. J&J tells DailyFinance that "Due to the current high pollen count, there has been an increased demand for certain medicines manufactured by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, including Zyrtec (cetirizine HCI) and Benadryl (diphenhydramine) products."
Competing for a share of the allergy medication market are Merck (MRK), which inherited Schering-Plough's consumer division, and U.K.-based Reckitt Benckiser, which makes Mucinex. Procter & Gamble (PG), Pfizer (PFE) (which acquired Wyeth and its consumer division) and Novartis (NVS) also hold smaller shares of the OTC allergy market, and they may also get a sales boost from this year's harsh allergy season.
But while some companies may see a benefit, it's important for consumers to remember that OTC meds aren't without risk: They have side effects and can react with other drugs. Also, the same active ingredients can often be found in several different OTC drugs, which increases the danger of an overdose if consumers aren't careful. And some meds shouldn't be taken at all while you're pregnant or if you have other medical conditions.
The Food and Drug Administration has prepared a guide, as did the National Institutes of Health on its Medline site, as well as explanations on OTC antihistamine options.