Gluten Free Medications – Separating Truth from Fiction
(note: this article originally posted in 2011 and has been updated)
If you’ve ever worried about finding gluten free medications, you’ll appreciate my concern when an urgent email came out in all caps with a rarely-used triple exclamation point in the subject line. The email: “ROBITUSSIN NOW CONTAINS GLUTEN!”
That was it. No details, no source. And it didn’t just go to me — it went to a huge celiac support group list.
These kinds of alerts and warnings are broadcast on our celiac listservs, posted on Twitter and Facebook, and shared in emails and support group meetings all the time. Unfortunately, that’s often our community’s best means of protection. Also unfortunately, these urgent messages are often false and lead to gluten free panic attacks. (The converse of that is also true: there was a post on Twitter recently that envelope glue in the US no longer contains gluten; this fact has been true for years, but it caused panic in folks who never knew there used to be gluten in envelope glue, and wondered what else they didn’t know!).
This warning had me on my heels though, since my go-to list of gluten free medications (most recently updated last month) didn’t indicate that any Robitussin medications contain gluten. So, I called Pfizer, the maker of Robitussin (their toll-free number is on the website).
The answer I got in 2011 was different from the answer I got when I checked again in 2016. Previously, I had been told that THREE of the Robitussin varieties contained added gluten; the remaining products were not tested to determine whether they were gluten-free, but there was no gluten in their ingredients.
I had earlier reached out to Steve Plogsted — a clinical pharmacist and professor of pharmacy, and THE resident expert on gluten in pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications — to see his take on all this ingredient confusion. Plogsted was out of the country when this story broke, but called Pfizer himself upon his return. This is what Plogsted told me about his 2011 conversation with Pfizer (quoted with permission):
I just spoke with the company and they are now saying that the only Robitussin product that contains gluten is the Maximum Strength Cough and Chest Congestion DM and the source of that gluten is corn. They said that they are not allowed to separate (in their response) the source of gluten. They are aware that corn gluten is OK and wheat is not but to them, gluten is gluten.
There are no glutens in syrups so this whole deal is just crazy in my opinion. This is the same company who has told me that 8 or so of their prescription products contain gluten which they don’t; they contain the sugar alcohols.
In 2016, whether because of formula changes or due to a better understanding of gluten, the company now says that they do not add gluten to any of their Robitussin products, but that they also do not test to ensure the products are gluten free.
2016 Gluten in Medications Update:
Other surprises? Dimetapp Tabs and Bufferin Regular 325s currently contain gluten (always check the updated GlutenFreeDrugs.com list to be sure).
- Don’t jump to conclusions and panic over everything you hear or read about gluten. That being said, if you’re unsure, don’t take a chance.
- Use the resources available to you: trusted books or internet sources, physicians, experts.
- If ever in doubt, call the customer service number for any brand or product — that’s why it’s there.
- When it comes to pharmaceuticals, ask your pharmacist to confirm the gluten-free status of all your prescriptions. They’ll follow up with the manufacturers on your behalf, and inquire about starches and other excipients (ingredients) used in the formulations.
- Share the information you learn with others in a reasonable manner that informs rather than scares.
- Check the updated list at GlutenFreeDrugs.com
If you would like to learn more about pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medications and gluten, go to:
The First Year: Celiac Disease & Living Gluten Free (2008 Da Capo Press)
Steven Plogsted, “Medications and Celiac Disease — Tips from a Pharmacist,” Practical Gastroenterology (January 2007): 58-64, The Celiac Diet, Series #5, Carol Rees Parrish, ed.
GlutenFreeDrugs (list of medications)