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4 Most Common Medicines That Rely on the Cold Chain 

Last updated on June 20th, 2023 at 09:51 am

Almost all drugs have temperature ranges in which they are more or less viable. Temperature is an important component of chemical reactions, and many medicines will change at a molecular level when they are subjected to temperature extremes. Sometimes, these changes make drugs ineffective — and sometimes, they make them dangerous.

Thus, to preserve the integrity of medicines intended to promote health, many pharmaceuticals are shipped using the cold chain. The cold chain ensures full temperature control over every step of transportation and storage in the supply chain, so goods can maintain a high level of quality for their end user. Often, cold chain shippers and carriers will utilize temperature indicators to track temperature ranges and intercept damaged goods before their delivery and use.

Though it is impossible to list all drugs that rely on the cold chain, here are a few of the most popular medicines that are shipped using cold chain tech.

Vaccines

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines were among the most numerous and most important medicines in the cold chain. All vaccines are sensitive to temperature extremes, and some — like the COVID vaccines and boosters — must be kept within a specific range to remain viable.

Unlike most other medicines, vaccines are preventatives; rather than helping a patient recover from disease, vaccines work to protect an individual from experiencing severe negative effects from disease — or to avoid contracting a particular disease entirely. Since their invention, vaccines have saved countless hundreds of millions of lives. The COVID vaccine alone, introduced only two years ago, is estimated to have saved over 3 million lives in the United States. Thus, protecting vaccines as they travel around the world is among the best applications for cold chain technology.

Insulin

Some people are born with a congenital issue that leads to the loss of insulin-producing cells; others become resistant to insulin through a combination of genetic predisposition and lifestyle factors — but both suffer from the disease called diabetes. When the body lacks a healthy insulin response, cells often lack the energy they need to function, and various systems can shut down.

Diabetes has plagued the human race for millennia, and when doctors and researchers synthesized insulin in the 1920s, they sold the patent for $1, knowing that the medicine would save millions of lives. Unfortunately, despite knowing that their customers require insulin to survive, many drug companies operating today price insulin so high that diabetes sufferers cannot afford it.

Though insulin does rely on the cold chain, which can increase costs for companies manufacturing, shipping and storing the drug, insulin is not more costly to produce and sell than other cold chain medicines. The overpricing of insulin is almost entirely due to the greed of drug companies, and regulation in the pharmaceutical industry could help diabetes sufferers acquire better health.

Eye Drops

Many people use eye drops to lubricate their eyes, which can alleviate discomfort like itchiness, roughness and stickiness. However, some rely on special medicated eyedrops to manage a severe disease called glaucoma. Glaucoma occurs when too much fluid accumulates inside the eye, and the extra pressure of that fluid begins to damage the optic nerve. This disease is one of the most common causes of blindness in older people, and it is easily treatable through the regular application of eyedrops.

Glaucoma eye drops need to be kept remarkably cold, but they cannot be allowed to freeze. Thus, cold chain technologies must be extremely accurate in their maintenance and measurement of temperature when transporting and storing this crucial medicine.

Inhalers

An estimated 262 million people around the world have been diagnosed with asthma, a respiratory disease in which the airways become dangerously inflamed. Mild symptoms of the disease include wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath, but severe cases can result in death. Fortunately, asthma is a treatable disease, and the use of aerosol sprays administered through inhaler devices can rapidly reduce inflammation, alleviating discomfort and reducing risk of serious harm.

Not all asthma sprays are extremely sensitive to temperature, like other medicines on this list. Often, asthma sufferers can carry their inhalers with them without worrying about a reduction in the efficacy of the medication. However, some of the more powerful aerosol sprays used in severe asthma cases are best transported and stored cold.

By no means are these the only medications in the cold chain — but they are by far the most popular and the most important to keep safe and effective. 

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