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Prescription drugs can be shockingly expensive — it’s not unheard of to pay several hundred dollars for a month of pills if you’re not insured. So what about buying online? It’s certainly cheaper, but is it safe? And how can you make sure you don’t get burned?

The Online Pharmacy Industry

It’s very difficult to get an accurate count of how many people use online pharmacies. In the US alone, there have been several different surveys that point to different results. PharmacyChecker Blog, in a review of studies on the issue, reports that an FDA study indicated 23% of Americans buy prescriptions online, though only about 4% (almost 13 million people) bought from a pharmacy not associated with their health insurance.

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Other studies have found that around 5 million Americans have purchased prescriptions online from outside of the country to save on the cost of medicine. PharmacyChecker also found a study that estimated 2.4 million Americans buy medicines online without a prescription each year.

Their report is careful to point out that many of the studies quoted had small, non-representative samples, so it’s difficult to know just how accurate these numbers are. No matter which figures you believe, though, it’s clear that there are millions of people buying prescriptions online.

The Dangers of Buying Drugs Online

With millions of people buying prescription medications online, it might come as a surprise that it can be very dangerous. The FDA has received reports of people ordering Xanax, Ambien, Lexapro, and Ativan, and actually receiving Haldol, a powerful anti-psychotic — many of these people required emergency treatment for difficulty breathing and muscle spasms.

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In 2013, Forbes cited a preliminary study that found up to 77% of Viagra purchased online could be fake, and possibly dangerous. Some of the ingredients in these fake pills included blue printer ink, amphetamines, drywall, and plaster. Obviously, identifying real drugs PillBox: Easily Identify Prescription Drugs PillBox: Easily Identify Prescription Drugs Read More versus fake ones is very difficult.

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Interestingly, some of the drugs also included more than the usual amount of the effective ingredient in Viagra, which could potentially be just as dangerous.

A CNN report found chalk, talcum powder, road paint, and dangerous heavy metals in counterfeit HIV and malaria drugs in Africa. The author also estimated that, annually, 100,000 deaths around the world could be attributed to fake drugs. These numbers are impossible to corroborate or easily study, but it’s clear that the risks are real.

It’s also important to note that not all counterfeit drugs have the potential to be lethal. Some of them may just cause different side effects RateADrug: Prescription Drugs Side Effects And Ratings RateADrug: Prescription Drugs Side Effects And Ratings Read More than the ones typically reported by people who take the drug. But why risk it?

Staying Safe

So how can you stay safe? You could refrain from buying prescriptions online — but for a lot of people, that’s just not an option. In 2012, Fox reported 45% of people under the age of 65 who didn’t have insurance reported that they didn’t fill a prescription because they couldn’t afford it. You can save money buying prescriptions online, but if you do, you should do everything you can to stay safe.

1. Look for a “.pharmacy” domain.

According to safe.pharmacy, any site with a .pharmacy URL has been vetted to ensure that they “meet all applicable regulatory standards, including pharmacy licensure and valid prescription requirements, in the jurisdictions where they are based and where they serve patients.” If your site has a .pharmacy domain, you can be confident that it’s a reputable site.

2. Make sure the pharmacy requires a prescription.

This is a major warning sign: if you can buy a prescription drug without a prescription, the pharmacy is operating illegally, and there’s no telling what they could be selling you. Similarly, there should be a licensed pharmacist available to discuss your prescriptions with you.

3. Look for contact information.

If the pharmacy doesn’t list an address, phone number, and contact email address, they’re probably running a questionably legal (or totally illegal) operation. The FDA recommends making sure that the address is a US address. Remember that importing a non-approved drug could be breaking the law.

4. Check to see if the pharmacy is licensed.

If your online pharmacy is based in the US, you can check with your state’s licensing board to make sure that it’s properly licensed. Each state has different systems, but the FDA provides a useful list of links that you can use to get started. In the UK, PharmacyRegulation.org lets you check the credentials of a site or pharmacist.

5. Look for VIPPS accreditation.

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The Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) accreditation is an industry standard program for online pharmacies. If an online pharmacy is on the VIPPS list, it has passed inspection by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). These are trustworthy sites that you can be confident in using.

6. Use PharmacyChecker.

Several of the above points are only valid if you’re using a US-based pharmacy. If you’re looking to buy from a pharmacy outside of the US, you can check the list of PharmacyChecker-approved providers. To get the seal of approval, the pharmacy must be licensed, require a prescription, provide contact information, and protect personal information.

7. Check NeedyMeds.com.

Another site dedicated to helping you find reputable online pharmacies and patient assistance programs is NeedyMeds.com, a non-profit website that helps patients find affordable drugs GoodRx: Find Lowest Price Medicine Across Different Pharmacies GoodRx: Find Lowest Price Medicine Across Different Pharmacies Read More . This is a great site to help you find generic prescriptions MedTipster: Save Money On Drugs With Affordable Generics MedTipster: Save Money On Drugs With Affordable Generics Read More when they’re available. Any website found via NeedyMeds is likely to be accredited, but it’s still a good idea to double-check anyway.

Be Smart

Ordering prescriptions online has gotten a bad rap. But if you’re smart about finding a trustworthy online pharmacy, you’ll face minimal risk and you could be able to save a great deal of money on prescriptions. Until you can print your own medicine at home 8 TED Talks Videos Under 5 Minutes Long You Want to Watch 8 TED Talks Videos Under 5 Minutes Long You Want to Watch Have five minutes to kill? What better way to spend that time than to watch an fascinating or informative TED Talks video. There's a lot of great content available to watch on TED but sometimes... Read More  (yes, 3D printing of medicines has arrived), online pharmacies are the most futuristic way to get your prescriptions.

Have you used an online pharmacy in the past? What has your experience been? Would you recommend it to others? Share your thoughts below!

Image Credits: Prescription medications, Poison pills via Shutterstock.

  1. Sandy Tull
    November 3, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    I wasn't aware of the "VIPPS" certification for online pharmacies. Who gives VIPPS their accreditation? And how can we verify that a pharmacy is actually VIPPS certified, and not just copy-pasting VIPPS's logo on their site? http://www.sandstonepharmacies.com

  2. Francine Williams
    August 17, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    I've made purchases from several "Canadian" online pharmacies. I've had tablets from India dissolve when taking them out of their blister pack and Turkish product come with no English information. I recommend sticking to Canada or England. Always ask for the pharmacy license number. If they can't give you a license number, name and address of the pharmacy filling your order why would you ever order from them?

  3. Patsy Quinn
    August 14, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    I have successfully used two sites in the UK for non prescription products:

    Farmaline.co.uk for hair products

    Chemist direct.co.uk for Advil pain relief capsules

  4. fcd76218
    August 13, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    I have been using online pharmacies since 2009. At first I used Medco , which couple of years ago was taken over by Express Scripts. During this time I saved enough to buy a Tesla model X for cash. I have never had any problems. In fact, Express Scripts notified me when couple of my medicines came off patent so I could switch to the generic versions.

    Just like with any other online retailer, one should perform their due diligence. "Honest Sam's Pharmacy and Canoe Rentals" somehow does not inspire much confidence in the quality of their products. When I mention Medco or Express Scripts to my doctors, they all have only good things to say about the company. Express Scripts stock has been traded publicly for at least 20 years so that tells me that the company is not about to vanish into think air overnight.

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