The Internet provides convenient shopping with anonymity and sometimes with significant discounts. These traits have led many people to choose the Internet for their medication needs. Some sites, though, may be more interested in profits than the safety and efficacy of their products. For some products, it may simply cause buyer’s remorse, but for others it can have serious health consequences.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the safety of drugs in the US. The FDA oversees medications through research and production, and provides prescription guidelines and continuous monitoring for unknown side effects. If a drug does not perform as it should or is made in a poor manner, the FDA can ban medication sales in the US. Companies face serious consequences if the guidelines are not met. Medications produced in other countries also need to meet the FDA standards to be legally available in the US.
These strict policies ensure that the medication:
- Does what it says on the label
- Is consistently produced so you know exactly what you get in each dose
- Is prescribed properly
While there are some online medication companies that follow FDA standards, not all do. People may also choose to work around these safety standards to save money or get medication without a prescription. With millions of transactions occurring, it is impossible for the FDA to monitor every online sale. Consumers need to be aware of the potential dangers of online medication so they can make the best decisions.
Drug Quality and Dosage
Medications are carefully regulated in production. This means that each time you receive a dose you can expect the same amounts of each medication. Medications that are not regulated can have too much or too little of the promised ingredient and the amounts may vary from dose to dose. The variation in doses can not only affect its benefits, but can also cause serious side effects. For example, even if you take the recommended number of pills, you can overdose because the medication was poorly made. On the other hand, you may be taking the recommended number of pills but the medication is too weak and not able to produce the results you need.
Online sales may also include medications that have been banned from the US because of risks or poor performance. The drug may not have been banned in other countries and therefore, is still available. It is important to understand why the drug may have been banned from the US. Most often, the harmful aspects of the drug were greater than the benefits. Keep in mind that there are likely safer and legal alternatives.
The number of counterfeit products increases online drug dangers, as well. Counterfeit products are packaged to look like a legitimate product, but may have the wrong dose, altered active ingredients, or may be a completely different product. The unregulated producers sell the drug under its legitimate name, and it is difficult for the average consumer to know the difference.
When you cannot be certain of what drug is in the package, you cannot be certain of what the effects will be. You put your health at risk taking unknown medications.
Some people choose to use the Internet to bypass a doctor’s prescription. Some may not have a doctor and others may be embarrassed to discuss a topic with their doctor. But all drugs have side effects. Some of these can be deadly. There are several factors which could make a drug the wrong one for you, such as:
- Your current health
- Other medications, herbs, or supplements that you may be taking since they could interact with the new medication
- Amount of active ingredients in each dose
- Whether you need medical tracking, like regular blood screening, while taking the medication
Regulated websites will require and confirm a doctor’s prescription before dispensing medications. There is no guarantee that unregulated websites will do the same. Some websites may even go so far as to have an online doctor who can give you a prescription. But, this is illegal and ineffective. A doctor has to see you before prescribing the first dose of a new medication.
When Considering Medications Online
Talk to Your Doctor
Talk to your doctor about the medication you are choosing. Avoid buying from websites that do not require a prescription for prescription drugs or websites that offer to prescribe a new medication to you without a physical exam. These offers should be red flag warnings to stay away.
Whether the drug is prescription or alternative, your doctor should know about them. If cost is a concern, your doctor may be able to prescribe a generic version. Reviews have found that generic drugs are often less expensive than illegal online counterparts. Of course, you will also have a better guarantee that the medication is appropriate.
Only Use Websites That Have a Licensed Pharmacist
A licensed pharmacist can answer any questions you may have and help you avoid bad drug interactions. The pharmacist’s credentials should be easily accessible on the website.
Look for Safe Sites
Ideal online providers are state-licensed pharmacy websites in the US, preferably VIPPS- certified states. VIPPS stands for "verified Internet pharmacy practice sites." This is a certification given by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Read the privacy and security rules of the website. If their policy is unclear or does not provide enough safety or privacy, do not use it.
Do Your Homework
The FDA maintains a list of drugs that you should not buy online because they are easily misused. They also have lists of companies that they have encountered problems with. You can also report any websites with which you may have had problems.
The Internet can be helpful, particularly for people who may have difficulty getting to pharmacies. However, it is important to keep your doctor up to date and make informed decisions to protect your health and finances. The wrong medication can be very costly.
Food and Drug Administration
National Association of Boards of Pharmacy
Manitoba Institute for Patient Safety
Buying prescription medication online: a consumer safety guide. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/ucm080588.htm. Updated June 12, 2015. Accessed July 11, 2016.
FDA says consumers continue to buy risky drugs online. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2007/ucm109018.htm. Updated April 9, 2013. Accessed July 11, 2016.
OTC medicines: Know your risks and reduce them. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/drugs-procedures-devices/over-the-counter/otc-medicines-know-your-risks-and-reduce-them.html. Updated October 2013. Accessed July 11, 2016.
Verified internet pharmacy practice sites. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy website. Available at: http://www.nabp.net/programs/accreditation/vipps/find-a-vipps-online-pharmacy. Accessed July 11, 2016.
Last reviewed July 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 7/11/2016