Drug costs in the United States are comparably expensive to other countries. Some Americans drive to Mexico for their medications, others drive to Canada. But for those who aren’t near a bordering nation, the idea of buying medicine online becomes increasingly attractive.

Online pharmacies are undoubtedly convenient, and they may offer cheaper options. But an important question remains unanswered—if you don’t know how to buy medicine online, are internet pharmacies actually safe?

Best Practices to Buy Pharmaceuticals Online

The market for online pharmacies has grown exponentially in the last few years, creating concerns about the legality and safety of ordering pharmaceuticals from a digital provider. In response to the rise of digital pharmacies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released guidelines on how to buy medicine online.

Referred to as “rogue online pharmacies” by the FDA, these digital stores may not require proof of prescription for purchase. Rogue online pharmacies offer discounts, but they may be selling unapproved or imitation medicine.

Medicine sold in online pharmacies could have a dangerous ratio of active ingredients, containing too little or too much of the substance required for treating the condition. Without the correct ratio of active ingredients, the medicine may not work, or it may interact dangerously in combination with other medicines.

In the worse cases, unregulated medications may contain harmful ingredients that could cause serious side effects or lead to other health problems. The handling of medication, which includes storage, may also require specific temperatures. If that’s not taken into account, it could render the medication inactive.

How to Buy Medicine Online: Identifying Illegal Pharmacies

Many of these rogue sites claim to be based in Canada. Because there’s no way to actually verify their location, it’s possible that these pharmacies are located on the opposite end of the globe.

There are a few signs that indicate an online pharmacy is not legitimate. According to the FDA, a pharmacy may be illegal if:

  • It doesn’t require a valid prescription.
  • It doesn’t have a U.S. state-licensed pharmacist available for questions.
  • It offers discounts that are “too good to be true.”
  • It sends spam email advertisements.
  • It’s located outside of the U.S. and ships internationally.

Another reason online pharmacies may be dangerous is that pharmaceuticals may not contain critical FDA warnings about prescribing information, drug interactions and common side effects.  For example, if you try to buy Invokana online, you may not receive the regulatory insert that warns patients about an increased risk of amputation.

How to Buy Medicine Online: Selecting Online Pharmacies

The FDA has created the BeSafeRx program, which helps “raise awareness of the dangers of buying prescription medicines from fake online pharmacies.” It includes information on how to identify a fake online pharmacy and how to find a safe online pharmacy.

Online pharmacies that provide safe, approved medications will follow certain standards to ensure quality. According to the FDA, a pharmacy is legal if:

  • It requires a valid prescription.
  • It has a U.S. state license, which can be verified by the state board of pharmacy.
  • It provides a U.S. street address.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy lists of verified and unverified pharmacies. Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS®) bear a seal that indicates the website meets state requirements and other safety criteria. The board also releases a List of Not Recommended Websites, but even if a pharmacy isn’t named here it still may not be a safe alternative.

Protect yourself and your family. Always use caution when purchasing medication online, especially if there’s a discount.