High allergy incidence thanks to mild winter

In contrast to the most recent cough-cold season, which was characterized by a relative lack of upper respiratory illnesses, pharmacy shoppers with itchy eyes, runny noses and audible sneezes have been back in force this spring in search of allergy relief. And those patients are gravitating toward the OTC aisle for their seasonal allergy needs now that the last of the second-generation antihistamines was made available without a prescription a year ago. 


“[The choice between Rx and OTC] really depends upon the severity of the symptoms,” said Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, noting there is still a market for nasal steroids and allergy shots. However, many patients have made the transition to the OTC aisles now that Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra are all available without a prescription. 


The allergy category is becoming more magnified, particularly for front-end buyers, noted Scott Hanslip, director of sales at IMS Health. “Once Allegra moved [OTC], there was a drop of about 67% in [Rx] antihistamine tablets from September 2010 through December 2011,” he said. On the OTC side, Allegra helped carry OTC allergy sales through spring 2011. “If you were to remove that Allegra volume, the OTC overall consumption business was way off because it was a really dismal spring period [last year],” Hanslip said. 


This year, allergy incidence and consumption is up significantly, however. In part because of a mild winter, tree pollens triggered the spring allergy season some four weeks earlier this year, Fineman observed. And that increase in sufferers earlier in the year will translate into fairly significant consumption gains, Hanslip said. “We’re looking at anywhere from a 5% to 15% lift [in people affected by airborne allergens],” he said. 


As of April 27, approximately 23 million people were affected by airborne allergens, representing 8.2% of all adults and 5.3% of all children under the age of 13 years, according to IMS Health tracking. 


Most of the markets are already in “alert” status, Hanslip noted, though there is still some strong activity expected across the North and Northeast where there is a strong predominance of allergy sufferers. “Several of those markets haven’t gone from pre-alert to alert yet,” he said. Localizing inventory and promotional spends is even more critical across allergy as compared with cold and flu, Hanslip said, with potential swings of millions of sufferers seeking relief as the variant pollen levels fluctuate. 


For the summer, the North and Northeast, Midwest and Southeast markets will see significant gains in allergy sufferers, Hanslip said.