What is a Drug Shortage?

The FDA defines a drug shortage as a period of time when the demand for a certain drug exceeds its supply.1

What Causes Drug Shortages?

Drug shortages are often caused by many factors. However, the three most common factors are supply issues, demand issues,and regulatory issues.2 Supply issues can occur when manufacturing companies have competing priorities where they can produce several products that compete for the raw materials needed to make products. Therefore, manufacturing companies have a lower incentive to produce drugs and products that are not very profitable in the long run. Demand shortages can be caused by epidemics, disasters or an unexpected benefit of a drug that can increase the need of a drug beyond what can be supplied by manufacturers. For example, the diabetes drug semaglutide (Ozempic) experienced a shortage because doctors were prescribing this medication off-label due to its side effects of weight loss.5  Drug regulatory authorities employ standards for verifying a drug’s safety, efficacy and accuracy of claims on its label before it is accessible to the general public. Changes to these standards to drugs that are already on the market can cause manufacturers to review the qualifications of the drugs they produce which can lead to a drug shortage as this process can take a long time.

How Do I Know What Drugs Are in Shortage?

A list of drugs that are in shortage are frequently updated on the ASHP.org drug shortage page3 and the FDA drug shortage database on their websites.4 In addition, the FDA has developed a mobile app called DrugShortages that identifies current and recently resolved drug shortages.

What Can I Do to Help Prevent Unnecessary Drug Shortages?

As we have seen, the causes of drug shortages are often multifactorial and unfortunately are unavoidable in certain cases. However, there are some things that can be done to prevent shortages or mitigate their effect. You can help by not obtaining prescription drugs that were not prescribed for you. The stimulant Adderall is given to those with ADHD and ADD to help improve their focus; however, it is often abused by people who do not have these conditions because it may help them study and stay awake.6 Shortages can occur because people are illegally taking drugs for an unapproved indication. You can do your part in preventing shortages by not participating in these activities.  

What Do I Do If a Drug I Want Is in Shortage?                                                      

If you notice that an over-the-counter drug you would like is in shortage, first, call the pharmacy to see if they have it before going to the store to save yourself time. If they do not have it, you can ask the pharmacist if there is a suitable alternative to the drug in shortage that can be taken. 

If one of your prescription drugs is in shortage, you can talk to your doctor about alternate options. Perhaps, you can switch to an alternative drug with a similar profile and efficacy until your prescribed drug is available. It’s important to talk to your doctor before choosing a course of action or making any changes to your medications. Drug shortages are common but can be manageable with proper communication between healthcare providers and patients. 

Written by:

Sam Abiola
Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate 2024
Philadelphia College of Pharmacy
St. Joseph’s University


1. Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Frequently asked questions about drug shortages. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-shortages/frequently-asked-questions-about-drug-shortages#:~:text=The%20Federal%20Food%2C%20Drug%2C%20and,ability%20to%20supply%20the%20market. Accessed January 31, 2023.

2. Shukar S, Zahoor F, Hayat K, et al. Drug shortage: Causes, impact, and Mitigation Strategies. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2021.693426/full. Published June 29, 2021. Accessed January 31, 2023.

3. Current drug shortages. ASHP. https://www.ashp.org/drug-shortages/current-shortages?loginreturnUrl=SSOCheckOnly. Accessed January 31, 2023.

4. FDA drug shortages. FDA Drug Shortages. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/drugshortages/default.cfm. Accessed January 31, 2023.

5. People with diabetes struggle to find ozempic as it soars in popularity as a weight loss aid. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/people-diabetes-struggle-find-ozempic-soars-popularity-weight-loss-aid-rcna64916. Published January 12, 2023. Accessed January 31, 2023.

6. Shortage of ADHD drug adderall likely to last into 2023. CIDRAP. https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/resilient-drug-supply/shortage-adhd-drug-adderall-likely-last-2023. Accessed January 31, 2023.