As more people use the internet to understand their health issues, some also go online to buy prescription medicine.
But many online pharmacies are unregistered, so buying from them is potentially unsafe.
Medicine, such as Viagra for erectile dysfunction, and the cholesterol-lowering medication Lipitor (Atorvastatin), are often sold cheaply online and without a GP prescription or the advice of a pharmacist.
But this is risky because medicine should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Their guidance on whether a medicine is suitable for you, the dosage, possible side effects, and any harmful interactions with other medicines is crucial.
Medicine from an unregistered website could also be dangerous to your health because it might be out of date, diluted or fake.
For prescription-only medicines, an online pharmacy must receive a legally valid prescription before dispensing the medicine. This means you'll either need a paper prescription or an electronic prescription via the Electronic Prescription Service (EPS) from a GP or another healthcare professional.
You can post the prescription yourself if you like, but an email prescription is not sufficient. Once the prescription has been received, the medicine can be dispensed and sent to you.
Alternatively, some sites offer prescriber services, where you have an online consultation and a prescription is then sent to a pharmacy for dispensing.
It can be difficult to distinguish between registered online pharmacies and other commercial websites. The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) operates an internet pharmacy logo scheme to identify legitimate online pharmacies so you can be sure you're buying safe and genuine medicines online.
Problems arise when people diagnose their own condition, then obtain prescription medicine online without a prescription. The website supplying this medicine is acting illegally.
These are some of the things to look out for:
- Always get your medicine from a pharmacy or a reputable outlet.
- It's never a good idea to take a prescription medicine without a valid prescription. The medicine may not be suitable for you and could cause unpleasant side effects or serious health risks.
- Medicines should not be seen as regular consumer products. Fake medicine can cause real harm to your health.
- Do not be tempted by "spam" emails advertising cheap medicine. If something looks too good to be true, it usually is.
- Check for the internet pharmacy logo when buying medicine online.
- You can also check the registration status of the pharmacist by looking for the name and address of the pharmacy operating the website, as it should be connected to a "bricks and mortar" pharmacy.
- Medicine sold from disreputable websites can be poor quality at best and dangerous at worst. What you receive in the post could be counterfeit, substandard or unapproved new medicine, which can put your safety at risk.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has a register of authorised online sellers of medicines, which you can use to check if a website is legally allowed to sell medicines to the public.
New to using the internet?
You can find a vast amount of information on the internet, but how do you know which websites are the most trustworthy?
Read this online guide to using the internet, which has advice on how to navigate the web for health information, builds your confidence, and teaches you how to be safe online.
Page last reviewed: 20 April 2018
Next review due: 20 April 2021