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Buying Prescription Drugs on the Internet? Use Caution

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Updated: February 23, 2007

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If you have fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome (aka myalgic encephalopathy), or another chronic illness, there’s a good chance you take more than one prescription medication. As the prices of prescription drugs increase and insurance benefits decrease, more and more people are turning to the Internet to find affordable medications. But you need to be careful or the decision to purchase those inexpensive drugs may be one of the last decisions you ever make.

Buyer Beware

There are reputable, legitimate pharmacies on the Internet, but there are also many Web sites selling medicine that is unsafe and may put your health - or even your life - at risk. The Internet has become such an integral part of our lives, we sometimes forget that it has no borders and people can pretty much say and do whatever they want – including making fraudulent claims and selling dangerous products. Some medicines sold online are:
  • not what they claim to be (fake or counterfeit drugs).
  • stronger or weaker than they are supposed to be.
  • past their expiration date.
  • contaminated.
  • improperly manufactured.
  • not labeled, stored or shipped correctly.
  • imported from countries that have few, if any, safety standards.
In February 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reissued a warning to consumers about the dangers of buying prescription drugs online. This warning was the result of the FDA’s discovery that a number of people who had ordered the drugs Ambien, Xanax, Lexapro or Ativan instead received a medication containing haloperidol, a powerful anti-psychotic drug.

Warning Signs

Unsafe and illegal pharmacies can be hiding behind Web sites that look professional and sound legitimate. So how can you identify the potentially dangerous sites? Do not order medications from an Internet pharmacy if:
  • there is no way to contact the Web pharmacy by phone.
  • there is no physical address given for the pharmacy – only a post office box or no address at all.
  • prices are dramatically lower than the competition.
  • no prescription from your doctor is required.
  • they offer an online “consultation” (usually in the form of a questionnaire) after which they will “prescribe” and send you one or more drugs.
  • their sales pitch sounds too good to be true (i.e., promising “miracle” cures, offering fast and easy prescription drugs with no doctor needed)

Identifying a Safe Site

There’s nothing wrong with having your prescriptions filled by a safe, reputable Internet pharmacy. You can enjoy the benefits of comparing prices and purchasing your medications without having to leave home. But how can you tell if an online pharmacy is safe? There are several things to look for before you decide to purchase medication from an Internet pharmacy. A safe Web pharmacy should:
  • be located in and licensed by the country you live in. If you live in the United States, the pharmacy should be licensed by the board of pharmacy in the state from which the Web site is operating. You can find out if a U.S. Web pharmacy is in good standing by checking the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy Web site. Outside the U.S., check with your country’s pharmacy licensing board.
  • require a prescription from a doctor or other health-care professional who is licensed to write prescriptions in your country.
  • have a licensed pharmacist available to answer your questions.
  • provide a valid phone number where you can talk to a live person if you should have a problem.
  • have privacy and security policies that are easy to find and understand.

Dangers of Filling Prescriptions Abroad

If you are thinking about ordering prescription medications from an Internet pharmacy in another country, you need to be aware that drugs may vary considerably from country to country. The FDA has found 105 brand name U.S. drugs that have foreign counterparts with either an identical or similar sounding name but with very different active ingredients.

The following three examples illustrate some of the differences found in an FDA investigation:

  • Flomax in the U.S. is the brand name for tamsulosin, a treatment for an enlarged prostrate. In Italy, the active ingredient in Flomax is morniflumate, an anti-inflammatory drug.
  • Norpramin in the U.S. is the brand name for desipramine, an anti-depressant. In Spain, the active ingredient in Norpramin is omeprazole, a treatment for stomach ulcers.
  • Ambien in the U.S. is the brand name for a sleeping medication. In the United Kingdom, a drug with the brand name Amyben is used to treat abnormal heart rhythms.
Since there is no international standardization of drug trade names, it is important that you purchase your prescriptions from a pharmacy in the same country as the prescribing physician. If for some reason you can’t avoid having to fill your prescription in another country, be sure to compare the ingredients and strengths and discuss any differences you find with your doctor before you take them.

Gambling With Your Life

If you’re tempted to order prescription drugs from a questionable Web site, ask yourself if the potential financial savings is worth the risk to your health and life. You’re not only taking the chance that the medication you receive may not work, you’re taking the risk that it could be life-threatening.

Source: "Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online." U.S. Food and Drug Administration. U.S. United States Department of Health and Human Services. 17 Feb 2007.

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