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Common statins such as Lipitor, Crestor or Zocor may not be the same as advertised and sites often don't include warnings about side effects or even require a prescription, the researchers noted.
"A potential purchaser of statins in the U.K., where one can only legally receive them on a doctor's prescription, searching the web for product, is likely to encounter sites from a wide geographical base and of generally poor quality," said lead researcher David Brown, from the School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Portsmouth.
"Potentially, customers who obtain statins in this way, without their doctor's prescription, may not be aware of potential side effects and may put themselves in harm's way," he added.
The report was published Feb. 2 in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety.
For the study, Brown's team looked at 184 Internet sites offering statins.
"Information necessary for safe use of the product was often poorly presented and in the majority of cases, incomplete," Brown said. "Where present, side effect information such as warnings, contraindications and possible side effects was in general, unstructured and unhelpful."
They found that more than 92 percent of these sites did not include information on contraindications for statins. In addition, another 47 percent didn't include information on drugs that shouldn't be taken along with statins.
Only 7 percent of the sites listed all known side effects and only 65 percent described any side effects in lay language, they added.
Dr. Laurence Gardner, a professor of medicine and executive dean for education and policy at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that this is not really a problem in the United States.
"There are countries that let you buy statins without a medical exam or a prescription," Gardner said. "In this day and age, that's nuts."
In the United States, very high-potency generic statins are available for $4 a month from big box stores, he said. "So, it's inconceivable that you can buy them cheaper."
"Moreover, there are enough side effects from these drugs that it requires at least a modest amount of physician oversight," he said.
In addition, people taking statins need to have their cholesterol monitored to be sure they are hitting target levels and whether the dose of the drug needs to be adjusted, he said.
When buying prescription drugs on the Internet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises:
- Be sure the site requires a prescription and has a pharmacist available to answer your questions.
- Buy only from licensed pharmacies in the United States.
- Don't give personal information like credit card numbers unless you are sure the site won't release them.
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