Dangers of buying medicines online

As more people use the internet to understand their health issues, some also go online to buy prescription medication.

But many online pharmacies are unregistered, so buying from them is potentially unsafe.

Medication, such as Viagra for erectile dysfunction, and the cholesterol-lowering medication Lipitor (Atorvastatin), are often sold cheaply online and without a GP prescription or the advice of a pharmacist.

But this is risky because medication should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Their guidance on whether a medication is suitable for you, the dosage, possible side effects, and any harmful interactions with other medications is crucial.

Medication from an unregistered website could also be dangerous to your health because it might be out-of-date, diluted or fake.

For prescription-only medicines, an online pharmacy must receive a legally valid prescription before dispensing the medication. This means you'll either need a paper prescription or an electronic prescription via the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) from your GP or another healthcare professional.

You can post the prescription yourself if you like, but an email prescription isn't sufficient. Once the prescription has been received, the medication can be dispensed and sent to you.

Alternatively, some sites offer prescriber services, where you have an online consultation and a prescription is then sent to a pharmacy for dispensing.

Online consultations are legal, but the British Medical Association (BMA) opposes them 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 buying safe and genuine medications online.

Self-diagnosing

Problems arise when people diagnose their own condition, then obtain prescription medication online without a prescription. The website supplying this medication is acting illegally.

These are some of the things to look out for:

  • Always get your medication from a pharmacy or a reputable outlet.
  • It's never a good idea to take a prescription medication without a valid prescription. The medication may not be suitable for you and could cause unpleasant side effects or serious health risks.
  • Medications shouldn't be seen as regular consumer products. Fake medication can cause real harm to your health.
  • Don't be tempted by "spam" emails advertising cheap medication. If something looks too good to be true, it usually is.
  • Check for the internet pharmacy logo when buying medication 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.
  • Medication 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 medication, which can put your safety at risk.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has a register of authorised online sellers of medicines, which you can use to check if a website is legally allowed to sell medicines to the public.

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: 20/04/2018
Next review due: 20/04/2021