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Online Drugstores - Are they Safe?

Buying Drugs Online - What You Need to Know

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Updated June 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Online Pharmacies - Buy Drugs Online Safely
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For many of us, the Internet has changed the way we live, work and shop. It has made it possible for us to compare prices and buy medications without leaving our homes. According to estimates from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 400 U.S. and foreign companies sell prescription medications online.

If you decide to buy medications online, be very careful! Some websites sell drugs that may not be safe. Some sites also do not follow legal procedures, and you could put your personal information at risk.

So before you click that “buy” button and order a medication, here is what you need to know about online prescription drugs.

What are the benefits of buying medications online?

An online pharmacy can provide you with an easy and private way to buy prescription and over-the-counter medications, often at a more affordable price. Online pharmacies are especially convenient if you live in a rural area, do not drive, or if you are disabled, frail, or homebound. Internet technology also enables you to compare drug prices and shop for bargains.

If you feel embarrassed ordering certain medications or health care products, online pharmacies allow you to remain anonymous. For example, one of the most frequently purchased online medications is Viagra (Sildenafil), used for the treatment of erectile dysfunction.

If you have questions about your medications, many reliable Internet pharmacies allow you to consult with a licensed pharmacist from the privacy of your home. Internet pharmacies can also provide online product information that you can print, as well as links to other sources of information about your medications and health condition.

What are the dangers of buying medications online?

Many online pharmacies are legitimate businesses and, for the most part, you can use their services with the same confidence you have in your neighborhood pharmacy.

Unfortunately, there are numerous fraudulent or disreputable online pharmacies that may sell you medications illegally, do not follow proper procedures for filling your prescription, and may not protect your personal information.

Some websites that sell medications:

  • Are not licensed pharmacies or are not pharmacies at all.
  • Will sell you a prescription medication if you do not have a prescription, which is against the law.
  • May require you to fill out a questionnaire before ordering your medication and then use that information only to diagnose your problem. Without your doctor’s oversight, the online pharmacy may give you a diagnosis that is not correct and sell you medication that is not right for you or your condition.
  • Do not provide you with information about your medication, or provide you with information that is inaccurate or misleading.
  • Do not protect your personal information, such as your credit card number and address.

Some medications sold online:

  • Are fake
  • Have not been manufactured properly
  • Are too strong and may cause unwanted side effects
  • Are too weak and may not treat your health condition as expected
  • Have ingredients that may be dangerous to your health
  • Have expired or are out of date
  • Are not approved by the FDA and therefore have not been checked for safety and effectiveness
  • Are not safe to take with other medications or health products that you are using
  • Are not labeled, stored, or shipped correctly

How can I buy medications online safely?

Here are some recommendations from the FDA on how to be a smart Internet shopper:

  • Check with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NAPB) to determine if the site you want to use is a licensed pharmacy in good standing. The NAPB has certified 15 online pharmacies as Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS).

    In fact, the NABP reports that 99% of the Internet drug companies they review are not in compliance with state or federal regulations.

    The NAPB screens the quality of services of online pharmacies in 17 areas, such as how they fill prescriptions, how they protect your confidential information, and how they communicate with you. You will see the VIPPS seal on the websites of certified companies.


  • Do not buy from an online pharmacy that offers to prescribe a medication for the first time without a physical exam.

  • Do not buy from an online pharmacy that offers to sell you a prescription medication without a prescription from your doctor or that sells drugs that are not approved by the FDA.

  • Only use sites that provide easy access to a licensed pharmacist who can answer your questions.

  • Avoid sites that do not provide information about the company, including an address in the U.S. and a phone number to contact if you have a problem. The site should provide you with an easy way to read its privacy and security policies and practices.

  • Beware of sites that advertise a "new cure" for a serious disorder or a quick cure-all for a wide range of health conditions. These sites may include undocumented case histories of people claiming “miracle cures” or "amazing" medical results.

  • Beware of sites that claim the government, the medical profession, or research scientists have conspired to suppress a product.

  • If available, ask for the product in the manufacturer's original package. Closely inspect your medicine and its packaging upon receipt. If you notice anything unusual or if you are concerned about the safety of the medication, talk to your physician or a local pharmacist before taking the medication.

How can I report an online pharmacy?

If you find an Internet pharmacy that you think is illegally selling medications or if you have a complaint about the site, you can report your concerns to the FDA at:

Reporting Unlawful Sales of Medical Products on the Internet

And don’t forget: Buying your medications online can be easy. Just make sure you do it safely!

If you have questions or comments about this article, visit Dr. Mike’s Medication Forum.

Sources:

NABP Reports 99% of Internet Drug Outlets Out of Compliance with Pharmacy Regulations. e-News Archives. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. August 22, 2008. http://www.nabp.net/

Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online. Consumer Information. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. August 22, 2008. http://www.fda.gov/buyonline/

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