You’re on vacation enjoying the sights of an exciting foreign destination. While strolling the streets, you see signs advertising prescription medications at a lower cost than what you’d pay back home. But before you load up your suitcase with these bargain drugs, be aware that they might not be as safe or potent as you think. Furthermore, bringing medications purchased abroad into the United States is illegal.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Medications produced and distributed in the United States must be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has strict policies to ensure that the drugs are high quality, safe, and effective. The FDA, along with the US Customs Service, prohibits any importation of non-FDA approved prescription drugs. Medications from other countries may be missing an expiration date, inaccurately dosed, poorly made, incorrectly stored, or counterfeit, all of which could cause harm.
While it is illegal to bring these drugs into the country, the FDA may allow individuals to do so for personal use (no more than a 3-month’s supply) if certain criteria are met:
- The medication does not present an unreasonable or serious health risk
- When the intended use of the medication is unapproved in the US, and it is for a serious condition for which effective treatment is unavailable in the US
- You are not commercially promoting the medication
You state in writing that the medication is for personal use only, and you provide either the name and address of the US-licensed doctor responsible for your treatment
evidence that it is for the continuation of treatment begun in a foreign country
Although the FDA may allow foreign medications to be brought into the country under these circumstances, keep in mind that risks still exist. Below are some concerns to consider:
- All medications manufactured and sold in the US have passed strict FDA guidelines regarding their safety and effectiveness. Other countries may have different or less stringent guidelines, and the safety of drugs purchased abroad cannot be guaranteed.
- The medications may contain ingredients that, although legal in foreign countries, have not been tested in the US, and may be dangerous.
- Medications may contain none, too little, or too much of an active ingredient.
- Medication labels may have incomplete or false information about the treatment and may make claims that have not been evaluated. The labels may also be in a language you do not understand, which can hinder your ability to take them as recommended.
- Some medications require a doctor’s evaluation. Taking a medication without proper medical evaluation or monitoring may lead to unexpected or life-threatening consequences.
Another concern is that the medications might be counterfeit. Counterfeit drugs could pose serious health risks or fail to effectively treat your condition.
The Name Game
Fake or unsafe medication is not the only concern when purchasing abroad. You also need to make sure that the drug you are buying is specifically designed to treat your condition. For example, you would need to ensure that a drug is actually for lowering blood pressure and not for treating a thyroid problem.
The FDA has issued warnings to consumers and healthcare professionals that filling prescriptions abroad may lead to severe consequences. Although some US brand names may sound similar to brand names in foreign countries, the drugs may actually treat different conditions or contain different active ingredients.
For instance, ‘Norpramin’ is the US brand name for an antidepressant. But in Spain, the name ‘Norpramin’ is a stomach ulcer treatment. And while many US and foreign-produced medications that treat the same condition share the same brand name, do not assume that they are 100% alike. Their active ingredients may differ in important ways. Taking these drugs, then, requires guidance from a doctor since dosage, side effects, and drug interactions may be different.
Buying Medications From Foreign Websites
The same precautions you take when purchasing prescription medications in a foreign country should also be taken
if you attempt to purchase them over the Internet. The FDA warns that buying drugs from non-US-based websites can be risky since again, these drugs have not met the FDA’s standards for safety and effectiveness.
Aside from these health concerns, it is also difficult to know whether or not you are buying drugs from a reputable website. Reputable US online pharmacies have a Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) seal of approval from the National Association of Boards Pharmacy (NABP). The VIPPS seal indicates that the online pharmacy complies with state licensing and inspection requirements. You should be wary of US or foreign websites that have not been approved by the NABP, since they may not only be selling questionable products, they also may neither be licensed nor protect the personal information you share with them.
What About Canada?
For some time now, many Americans have looked to our neighbor to the north for purchasing prescription drugs less expensively. But according to the FDA, some drugs entering the US from Canada are actually from other countries and are passing through Canada. And although Canada has its own federal agency (similar to the FDA) responsible for regulating drugs within Canada, there is no guarantee that it is regulating drugs exported to the US. This means that some Canadian medications may actually be foreign counterfeits or may not meet US or Canadian safety standards.
If you are going to purchase drugs from Canada, try to find a doctor that is licensed to practice medicine in both the US and Canada. You will probably have to make an appointment first. If your aim is to save money, then at least you will be guarding your safety.
The Take Home Message
So before taking home those medications you bought in an exotic destination or hitting the purchase button on an offshore website, remember that the only way you will surely know that these drugs are safe is to purchase them from a reputable US pharmacy. If you have to buy medications outside the US—and you meet the legal requirements—make sure you talk to your doctor about what you are taking so they can monitor your condition and provide you with proper care and medical advice.
Buying prescription medications online: a consumer safety guide. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm080588.htm. Updated June 12, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2016.
Coverage of personal importations. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/ComplianceManuals/RegulatoryProceduresManual/ucm179266.htm. Updated June 19, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2016.
FDA cautions consumers against filling US prescriptions abroad [news release]. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2006/ucm108575.htm. Updated April 8, 2013. Accessed July 18, 2016.
Imported drugs raise safety concerns. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm143561.htm. Updated May 4, 2016. Accessed July 18, 2016.
Looks can be deceiving: the risks of buying medicines from across the border or around the world. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/ucm078918.htm. Updated May 4, 2016. Accessed July 18, 2016.
Last reviewed July 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 8/13/2014