Buying Prescription Drugs Online Safely

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, MD, FACP, FACR

Hundreds of Web sites offer prescription drugs for sale, and the number of online pharmacies is growing daily. While legitimate pharmacy sites can provide a private, practical, and sometimes cheaper way to obtain prescription medications - particularly for those who live in remote areas or are unable to travel to pharmacies - online buyers must take extra precautions to ensure that they are receiving safe medications from a reputable provider.

First and foremost, before you purchase medications from an online pharmacy, check to be sure that you are dealing with a U.S. state-licensed pharmacy. A list of licensed online pharmacies has been developed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies (NABP). The NABP has also developed a program to help individuals identify online pharmacies that comply with all state and federal regulations for dispensing of medications. You can recognize these reputable pharmacy Web sites, all of which display the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites™ seal (VIPPS® Seal). VIPPS® also has a section to check for Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites™ (Vet-VIPPS®) when buying prescription medication for your pets (http://www.nabp.net/indexroster.asp).

Safe online pharmacies should also:

  • require a prescription from your own U.S.-licensed physician;
  • have a pharmacist available to answer questions; and
  • provide contact information (including the phone number of a person you can talk to) in case you have problems or questions.

Purchasing drugs from an illegal online pharmacy can cause serious health risks. Drugs sold by an unlicensed pharmacy may be:

  • outdated or expired;
  • may be manufactured in substandard facilities;
  • may contain dangerous ingredients, may have been improperly stored; pr
  • or may be too strong or too weak.

Medications sold by unlicensed pharmacies can also contain the wrong drugs or even be outright fakes. Pharmacies that offer their own prescribing service also constitute a significant risk to your health. Both the American Medical Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agree that obtaining a prescription by filling out an online questionnaire does not conform to accepted standards of care and may result in an improper diagnosis or receipt of potentially harmful medications. Unscrupulous pharmacy Web sites may also sell or share your personal and financial information with other parties.

According to the NABP, about half of online pharmacies that offer a prescribing service are located outside the U.S., and purchasing drugs from these companies can be illegal. Prescription drugs available from foreign pharmacies may be products that the FDA has not approved, may not have been made under the quality standards required by U.S. law, or may not be labeled according to U.S. requirements. These drugs are prohibited by law from being sold in the U.S.

While caution is the rule when making any online purchase, buying prescription drugs online warrants extra scrutiny. Always thoroughly investigate an online pharmacy before making a purchase. When in doubt, contact the NABP to be sure the pharmacy is in good standing.

Reference: "Buying Prescription Medicine Online: A Consumer Safety Guide", U.S. FDA, August 2009.


Last Editorial Review: 10/1/2009