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Staying safe online

How to find reliable and accurate health information online

Using the internet to research health issues can save time and possibly a trip to the GP.  But beware, as some websites may contain unreliable information. A search for a condition such as cancer can bring up thousands of results, so how can you determine which websites are the most trustworthy?

Using this website

This site is funded by the Department of Health. It is committed to providing objective and trustworthy information and guidance on all aspects of health and healthcare. NHS Choices strives to ensure content is evidence-based, founded on the best scientific knowledge available.

The kind of standards we work to are what every internet user should seek from a health information service. The information should be:

  • approved by a clinical expert
  • reviewed and updated regularly
  • unbiased
  • non-commercial (not trying to sell you anything)
  • not claiming to replace the advice given by a doctor
  • not asking you to pay for a full emailed diagnosis

Learn more about the NHS Choices editorial policy.

NHS Choices has been certified as a producer of reliable health and social care information by The Information Standard, a certification scheme to help people decide which information is trustworthy. 

Further recommendations

If you’re feeling unwell and need medical attention, see your GP or call NHS Direct for advice on 0845 4647

When looking for advice on specific conditions, look for well-known organisations, such as the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research UK. Look for sites which end in .org (not-for-profit organisations) or .gov (government run).

Cross-check the information. If the same details are repeated across many different websites there's a greater likelihood of the information being accurate. 

Online support groups are great sources of information. Talking to other people living with a certain condition can be helpful and comforting.

Be wary of websites offering miracle cures. If something appears too good to be true, then it probably is.

Internet drugs

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 anti-impotence drug Viagra and the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, can be bought online cheaply and without a GP’s prescription. 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 ordered over the internet from an unregistered website could also be out-of-date, diluted or fake. They could be dangerous to your health.

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. For more information read the Internet pharmacy section on the GPhC website.

An online pharmacy must receive a legally valid prescription before dispensing medicines. This means they'll need a physical, paper prescription from your GP or other 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. This must be a legally valid paper prescription.  An online consultation is legal but the BMA (British Medical Association) opposes it and the General Medical Council (GMC) can prosecute for inappropriate prescribing and failing to make adequate diagnoses over the internet. 

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. 

Summary of what to look out for

  • You should always gets 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 for sale – 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 unreputable websites can be poor quality at best and dangerous at worst – what you receive in the mail could be counterfeit, substandard or unapproved new drugs, which can put your safety at risk. 

Page last reviewed: 06/08/2012

Next review due: 06/08/2014

The Information Standard

NHS Choices has been certified as a reliable source of health and social care information

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