• TUESDAY Q & A: Do Your Homework Before Ordering Prescription Drugs Online

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: Is it safe to order prescription drugs from an online pharmacy?

ANSWER: Ordering online can be convenient. But if you choose to go through an online pharmacy to fill your prescriptions, be careful. You need to make sure the pharmacy you use is credible and properly licensed. Keep in mind, too, that if you use an online pharmacy, it is still worthwhile to get to know your local pharmacist. That way, if questions or concerns come up, you have someone you trust that you can go to for reliable information.  There are about four billion prescriptions filled in the United States every year. Americans spend more than $300 billion a year on prescription drugs. Patients looking to save money may turn to online pharmacies, which offer to fill prescriptions at reduced costs. Many online pharmacies are legitimate. But, not all Web sites that offer prescription drugs can be trusted. Some are not pharmacies at all. With that in mind, it is very important that you take steps to help ensure your own safety when deciding to use an online pharmacy.   

First, make sure the online pharmacy you are considering is licensed in the state where it operates within the United States. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy can tell you whether an online pharmacy is licensed and in good standing. Some online pharmacy sites carry a seal of approval from Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites, or VIPPS. To gain this approval, they must maintain state licenses and allow inspections by the state Board of Pharmacy under which they are licensed.  

Take a close look at the contact information a site provides. Do not use a Web site that doesn’t provide a street address and phone number or that lists only foreign contact information. Use only U.S. pharmacies. International pharmacies may sell drugs that do not have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, or drugs that are illegal in the United States.   

Only order and take medications prescribed for you by your health care provider. He or she can determine if a particular drug is safe for you or if another treatment would be more appropriate. Never use a Web site that gives you a prescription if you complete an online questionnaire. It is illegal for online pharmacies to dispense medication without a valid prescription.  

When you receive your medications, double-check them to make sure they are what you ordered. Confirm that your name is printed correctly on the label and the name of the medication is correct. Check that the dosage matches your prescription. An expiration date should be clearly marked on the label. Also, inspect the packaging. Don’t take any medication that comes in unsealed packaging or in packaging that appears to be damaged or altered. Check that the medication looks the way you expect it to.  

Never take a medication if you are unsure about it. If anything appears odd, does not seem right, or if you have questions about the medications you receive from any pharmacy, talk to your doctor or pharmacist right away. Taking medication that is not meant for you can have life-threatening consequences. Working with a health care provider in person to make sure you are taking the right prescription drugs can help protect your health and safety. — Amy Sapola, Pharm.D., Pharmacy, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

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