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Dangers of buying your medicines online

As more people use the internet to understand their health issues, some also go online to buy prescription drugs. But many online pharmacies are unregistered, so buying from them is potentially unsafe.

Drugs, such as the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra and the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, are often sold cheaply online and without a GP prescription. But this is risky, as medications should only be taken under the supervision of a health professional. Their guidance on whether the drug is suitable for you, the dosage, possible side effects and any harmful interactions with other medications is crucial. 

Drugs from an unregistered website could also be dangerous to your health because they may be out-of-date, diluted or fake. Also read Why do medications have brand names and generic names? for more information.

An online pharmacy must receive a legally valid prescription before dispensing medicines. This means you will need either a paper prescription or an electronic prescription via the electronic prescription service from your GP or another health professional. You can post the prescription yourself if you like, but an email prescription is not sufficient. Once the prescription has been received, the medicine can be dispensed and sent to you.

Alternatively, some sites offer prescriber services, where an online consultation takes place and a prescription is subsequently sent to a pharmacy for dispensing. An online consultation is legal, but the British Medical Association (BMA) opposes it and the General Medical Council (GMC) can prosecute for inappropriate prescribing and failing to make adequate diagnoses over the internet.

It can be difficult to distinguish between registered online pharmacies and other commercial websites. The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) operates an internet pharmacy logo scheme to identify legitimate online pharmacies so that you can be sure you are purchasing safe and genuine medicines online.

Self-diagnosing

Problems come when individuals diagnose their own condition, then obtain prescription medicine online without a prescription. The website providing this medicine is acting illegally.

These are some of the things to look out for:

  • Always get your medicine from a pharmacy or a reputable outlet.
  • It is never a good idea to take a prescription medicine without a valid prescription. The medicine may not be suitable for you and could result in unpleasant side effects or serious health risks.
  • Medicines should not be seen as regular consumer products. Fake medicines can cause real harm to your health.
  • Don't be tempted by "spam" emails advertising cheap medicine. If something looks too good to be true, it usually is.
  • Check for the internet pharmacy logo when buying medicine online.
  • You can also check the registration status of the pharmacist by looking for the name and address of the pharmacy operating the website, as it should be connected to a "bricks and mortar" pharmacy.
  • Medicine sold from disreputable websites can be poor quality at best and dangerous at worst. What you receive in the post could be counterfeit, substandard or unapproved new drugs, which can put your safety at risk.

Comments

The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Tubith said on 25 April 2015

Why does this article describe the medicine as 'Drugs;? Internet medicine can be just a legit (and in some cases of higher quality than medicines sold in a UK pharmacy.

The article should also make it clear that the internet websites can also provide a consultation and are issued under the supervision of a health professional, in fact exactly the same as a Doctor or a Pharmacist on the High Street.

This article does not reveal the true safety and risk of buying online. Internet sales for everything is increasing and this will include medicines.

Why not call all medicines 'drugs' on all the other NHS Choices pages? Why the spin? Why the limitation of facts? Why the single opinion? NHS Choices remains untrsuted as a reliable source of information.

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Tubith said on 25 April 2015

I always source my medicines from the internet as they delivered to my home, I can select medicines at home, I do not waste my time at a pharmcist who does not have the medicine in stock. Also, if I need a prescription I can get one on-line and without NHS sharing the information. It is easy to find good suppliers of licenced medicine and you can extend the search to medicine licenced outside of the UK and supplied outside of the UK and have them sent for personal use.

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Page last reviewed: 23/04/2015

Next review due: 23/04/2017

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