Mayo Clinic Health Library

Buying prescription drugs online: The do's and don'ts

Updated: 07-15-2011

Point, click and buy. People do it for books, groceries, plane tickets — even vehicles. You may even be buying prescription drugs online through a national pharmacy chain or a mail-order program offered by your health insurance.

But did you know that there are a plethora of other sites that sell prescription medications? Although there are many legitimate online pharmacies, others aren't licensed in the United States — and some aren't pharmacies at all. So while buying prescriptions online can save you time and even money, be selective about which sites you use.

To safeguard your health and finances, remember these simple do's and don'ts for buying prescription drugs online.

Things to do:

  • Do consult your doctor. Only take medications prescribed for you by your doctor or another health care professional who knows you. He or she can determine if a particular drug is safe for you or if another treatment would be more appropriate.
  • Do use a licensed pharmacy. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy can tell you whether an online pharmacy is licensed and in good standing. Some sites carry a seal of approval from Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS). To gain this approval, sites must maintain state licenses and allow inspections by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
  • Do insist on access to a registered pharmacist. Reputable sites offer toll-free access to registered pharmacists to answer your questions. Some online pharmacies have traditional physical locations as well. If you have questions about a medication after you begin taking it or you're concerned about drug reactions, it may be valuable to speak with a pharmacist in person.
  • Do read the privacy and security policies. Before placing an order, be confident that your credit card number, personal health information and other personally identifiable information will be protected.
  • Do compare prices. You may find great deals online, but there aren't any guarantees. Check your local drugstore's price — it might beat the online price. If online prices are significantly lower than your local pharmacy, you should question whether the site is legitimate.
  • Do be alert for counterfeits. In some cases, drugs ordered online turned out to contain no active ingredient or to contain the wrong medicine. Reduce your risk by using only legitimate online pharmacies. Don't use any medicine that arrives in altered or unsealed packaging.

Things not to do:

  • Don't use a site that bypasses prescriptions. Online pharmacies that dispense medication without a valid prescription are violating U.S. law. Don't be lured in by sites that give you a prescription if you complete an online questionnaire. Only your doctor can safely prescribe medication for you.
  • Don't order medication that's not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It's illegal to import unapproved drugs into the United States. Taking an inappropriate or unsafe drug can have life-threatening consequences.
  • Don't overlook the address and phone number. Steer clear of sites that don't provide a street address and phone number or that list only foreign contact information. Use only U.S. pharmacies. International pharmacies may sell drugs that do not have FDA approval or that are illegal in the United States.
  • Don't keep complaints quiet. If your order doesn't arrive, you find unauthorized charges on your credit card, or you have another problem with an online pharmacy, report it to the FDA. Speaking up can help promote a safer marketplace for everyone.

Take control

Whether you fill your prescription at a local pharmacy or online, make sure you get just what the doctor ordered by checking the following:

  • Is your name printed correctly on the medication label?
  • Is the name of the medication correct?
  • Does the dosage match the prescription?
  • Is the packaging intact?
  • Is the expiration date clearly listed?

If you have any questions or concerns, check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking the medication. A simple phone call may help you avoid a potentially serious or costly mistake.

Site view: at a glance