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NHS pharmacy services explained

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Drugs from an unregistered website could also be dangerous to your health because they may be out-of-date, diluted or fake. Read about why 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'll 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 isn't 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 you can be sure you're purchasing safe and genuine medicines online.


Problems arise when people 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's 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 shouldn't 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.

New to using the internet?

You can find a vast amount of information on the internet, but how do you know which websites are the most trustworthy? Read our Get online guide, which has advice on how to navigate the web for health information, builds your confidence, and teaches you how to be safe online.

Page last reviewed: 23/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2018

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