- FDA advisory panel unanimously declares that phenylephrine, a primary ingredient in popular OTC cold and allergy medications, does not effectively combat nasal congestion.
- The drug, which generated nearly $1.8 billion in sales last year, might face regulatory challenges as the FDA re-evaluates its “generally recognized as safe and effective” status.
- There are still effective alternatives available, like pseudoephedrine, despite concerns from OTC drug manufacturers.
In a potentially game-changing move for the over-the-counter (OTC) cold and allergy remedy industry, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel has come to a unanimous decision. A common ingredient found in several go-to medicines, phenylephrine, simply doesn’t clear up nasal congestion as promised.
Phenylephrine, found in widely recognized brands such as Sudafed PE, Vicks Nyquil Sinex Nighttime Sinus Relief, and Benadryl Allergy Plus Congestion, dominated the US market with sales nearing a staggering $1.8 billion just last year. This revelation could turn the industry on its head.
How does phenylephrine claim to work? It’s believed to reduce the swelling of blood vessels in nasal passages, leading to relief from congestion. However, the panel has unveiled evidence from the FDA indicating that only a minuscule fraction of orally taken phenylephrine actually makes its way to the nose, and thus, its efficacy is seriously in question.
As Susan Blalock, a retired professor from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy in North Carolina, succinctly put it, the evidence is “pretty compelling that this medication is not effective.”
This startling discovery has prompted the FDA to reconsider the OTC designation of the drug as “generally recognized as safe and effective.” This status, generally reserved for older medicines, grants drugmakers the liberty to include an ingredient in OTC products without undergoing the formal process of an FDA application. If phenylephrine loses this designation, it might trigger an industry shake-up, pushing manufacturers to either pull products from shelves or come up with new formulations.
Jennifer Schwartzott, a patient representative, voiced her concerns bluntly, “This drug and this oral dose should have been removed from the market a long time ago.”
The rise of phenylephrine can be traced back to the early 2000s. It emerged as a substitute for pseudoephedrine, an ingredient once used in Sudafed. However, in 2006, due to concerns about its potential misuse in methamphetamine production, pseudoephedrine was shifted behind the pharmacy counter.
The recent panel discussions delved deep, presenting results from five separate studies conducted over the last two decades. Each of these studies arrived at the same conclusion: phenylephrine offers no more relief than a placebo. Furthermore, the FDA found inconsistencies in the initial findings that had once supported its OTC status. Dr. Peter Starke, an FDA official, noted, “We do believe that the original studies were methodologically unsound… the new data are credible and do not provide evidence that oral phenylephrine is effective as a nasal decongestant.”
To make matters worse, phenylephrine isn’t just ineffective. There are potential side effects to consider, including headaches, insomnia, and nervousness. Elevated doses could even hike blood pressure.
Interestingly, the panel hasn’t cast doubts on nasal spray phenylephrine, which continues to be believed to offer short-term congestion relief.
Despite these revelations, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, representing OTC drug manufacturers, didn’t present counter evidence to the FDA’s claims about the drug’s ineffectiveness. Instead, they emphasized the potential challenges consumers might face if oral phenylephrine was no longer available OTC.
But Dr. Maryann Amirshahi of Georgetown University School of Medicine countered their concerns, pointing to the accessibility of effective alternatives like pseudoephedrine.
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