Buying Medicines Online: It's Convenient and Private, but Beware of Unsafe Websites
The scene is becoming increasingly common in the U.S.: Consumers are replacing a trip
to the corner pharmacy with a click onto the Internet. This is where they find hundreds
of websites selling prescription medicines and other health products.
Many of these are safe, legal companies that genuinely offer convenience and privacy.
They use the same safety measures as more traditional methods for prescribing medicines.
For the most part, consumers can use these services with the same confidence they
have in their neighborhood pharmacist. Some of these sites are familiar large pharmacy
chains. Others are small, locally owned and operated pharmacies, set up to serve their
It is always important to be careful when buying medicines online. Some websites
sell products that are not FDA-approved. This means they haven’t been checked for
safety and effectiveness. Other websites may not follow established procedures meant
to protect consumers. For example, some sites only ask you to fill out a questionnaire
before ordering prescription medicines. They don’t require face-to-face interaction
with a healthcare professional.
Buying medicines from sites like this may put your health at risk. You may end up
with medicine that isn’t safe to take with other medicines or products that you use.
Or the medicine you buy may be contaminated, fake, or outdated.
A brave, new world
For some people, buying prescription medicines online offers advantages not available
from a local pharmacy including:
Greater availability of medicines for people confined to their homes, or for those
who live far from the pharmacy.
The ease of being able to compare many sites to find the best prices and products.
Greater convenience and access to a wide variety of products.
Easier access to written product information, and references to sources other than
what you would typically find in traditional storefront pharmacies.
The ability to order products and talk with a pharmacist in the privacy of your home.
Internet medicine shopping also claims to save consumers money. In some cases, this
But consumers seeking health products online can find dozens of sites that the FDA
says are legally questionable. Many of them specialize in providing medicines for
erectile dysfunction, baldness, or weight loss. Others, based in foreign countries,
promise to deliver prescription medicines at a much cheaper price than in the U.S.
Foreign or illegal medicine sources may be different from those approved in the U.S.
Or they may be past their expiration dates. Others make false health claims or advertise
that you can buy medicines with no prescription.
Overseeing online sales
Whether new legislation will improve oversight of online pharmacies remains to be
seen. State medical boards regulate medical practice, while state pharmacy boards
oversee pharmacy practice. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission make sure that
medicine sellers make legal, scientifically proven claims for their products. Many
other agencies, such as the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Postal Service, enforce
laws regarding the shipment of medicine products.
The FDA regulates the safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing of pharmaceutical medicines.
It also regulates a part of the prescribing process.
Regulating online sales of health products is still fairly new. But the FDA has successfully
taken action against illegal sites.
How online sales work
In general, legal online pharmacies work this way:
Consumers open an account with the pharmacy and submit their credit and insurance
information. The pharmacy is licensed to sell prescription medicines by the state
in which it operates. It is also licensed and in those states to which it sells, if
an out-of-state license is needed.
After creating an account, you must submit a valid prescription. Your healthcare provider
can call it in. Or you can deliver send it to the pharmacy by fax or mail.
Some online pharmacies send products from a central spot. Others allow you to pick
the prescription up at a local pharmacy. Prescriptions usually are delivered quickly,
often with no shipping charge. For an extra fee, many sites will deliver overnight.
Sites typically have a way for you to ask questions of the pharmacist, either through
email or a toll-free number.
What consumers can do
With hundreds of medicine-dispensing websites in business, how can you tell which
sites are legitimate ones? The FDA offers these tips to consumers who buy health products
Check with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) to determine if the
site is a licensed pharmacy in good standing. The NABP can be reached at 847-391-4406
or online at nabp.pharmacy.
Don't buy from sites that offer to prescribe a prescription medicine for the first
time without a physical exam, sell a prescription medicine without a prescription,
or sell medicines not approved by FDA.
Stay away from sites that don’t provide access to a registered pharmacist to answer
Stay away from sites that don’t identify with whom you are dealing. Don’t provide
a U.S. address and phone number to contact if there's a problem.
Beware of sites that advertise a new cure for a serious disorder or a quick cure-all
for a wide range of health problems.
Be careful of sites that use impressive-sounding terms to cover up a lack of good
science. Also, watch out for sites that claim the government, the medical profession,
or research scientists are working together to block a product.
Don’t use sites that include undocumented case histories claiming amazing results.
Talk with your healthcare provider before using any medicine for the first time.
If you think a site is illegal, you can report it to the FDA online at FDA.gov.