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Can You Safely Buy Medications Online?

Monday, February 10th, 2014

In a study of internet users conducted recently by the FDA, researchers found that while 20 percent of the participants had used the Internet to buy prescription medications, 29 percent reported being unsure of how to buy medicines online safely.

Medications can be bought safely online, but the patient must be aware of the dangers and be able to determine which Internet pharmacies are legitimate and which ones are not. The stakes are high, since if you put your trust in the wrong website, you could end up with a medicine (over the counter or prescription) that isn’t safe to take.

Making this determination isn’t as easy as it seems. Websites that sell potentially dangerous drugs often have a very professional and legitimate look. However, no matter how professional a website looks, it could be run by an illegal operation, which may sell drugs that are unapproved, contain the wrong ingredients, contain too little or too much of the active ingredient, or even contain dangerous ingredients.

So how can you avoid these risks while taking advantage of the convenience of online shopping? For starters, the pharmacy you choose should be located within the United States. It should be licensed by the state pharmacy board in the state where the website is operating. You can find a list of boards here. A licensed pharmacist should be available to answer questions, and the pharmacy should not be willing to sell you prescription medicines without a prescription. Finally, the website should provide contact information and you should be able to contact a live person by phone if you need to.

Another way to protect yourself is by being sure to check the appearance of the medicine before you take it, including its shape, size, color, and packaging, as well as its smell and taste. Some medications found online may be too strong or weak, past their expiration dates, labelled incorrectly, shipped incorrectly, or outright counterfeit.

Counterfeit drugs present a special danger because they are often difficult to identify and there is often no way for the buyer to know what is in them. They may not be effective for their intended purpose, or they may contain the wrong amounts of ingredients or even the wrong ingredients, period. This can be extremely dangerous and lead to harmful side effects. The fake packaging on these types of products can look quite legitimate. This is why it is so important to make sure to buy medications online from a trustworthy source.

And if you need one more reason not to trust online pharmacies without thoroughly investigating them first, how about identity theft or credit card fraud? Never give any website your personal information, such as credit card information, medical history, or social security number, unless you are sure the website is legitimate and will protect your information.

The take-home message from this blog entry is that I strongly discourage buying ANY prescription medications online.  Your local pharmacist has your history and is aware of any potential interactions with other medications that you have been prescribed, which could be life-saving.   Are you willing to risk your life to save a few dollars?   Think about it.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.