Online Pharmacies - Are They Safe?

Buying Drugs Online - What You Need to Know

Are online pharmacies safe? For many of us, the Internet has changed the way we live, work, and shop. It has made it possible for us to compare prices and buy medications without leaving our homes. And most insurance plans cover mail-order prescription delivery, with refills that can be ordered online.

But the internet also has some bad apples, with websites that attempt to skirt regulations or scam consumers. This is true for online pharmacies, just as it is for every industry.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made efforts to crack down on websites that sell illegal and potentially dangerous medications. The FDA has also created a general guide for consumers, explaining what to look for in an online pharmacy and how to recognize potential red flags. And the agency's BeRxSafe resource helps consumers determine whether a particular online pharmacy is a safe and legitimate place to obtain medications.

Woman holding pill bottle and using tablet
EVOK / M.Poehlman / Getty Images

So as with other transactions that you might make on the internet, if you decide to buy medications online, be very careful! Some websites sell drugs that may not be safe. Some sites also do not follow legal procedures, and you could put your personal information at risk.

Before you click that “buy” button and order a medication, here is what you need to know about online prescription drugs.

What Are the Benefits of Buying Medications Online?

An online pharmacy can provide you with an easy and private way to buy prescription and over-the-counter medications, often at a more affordable price. Online pharmacies are especially convenient if you live in a rural area, do not drive, or if you are disabled, frail, or homebound.

Internet technology also enables you to compare drug prices and shop for bargains, and your health insurance company may encourage you to order a three-month supply of your medication and have it shipped to your home.

If you feel embarrassed ordering certain medications or healthcare products, online pharmacies allow you to remain anonymous. For example, one of the most frequently purchased online medications is Viagra (Sildenafil), used for the treatment of erectile dysfunction.

If you have questions about your medications, reliable Internet pharmacies will generally allow you to consult with a licensed pharmacist from the privacy of your home (the lack of a pharmacist who can answer your questions is one of the FDA's red flags that an online pharmacy may not be a safe website).

Legitimate internet pharmacies will be licensed by the state board of pharmacy, and will always require a healthcare provider's prescription in order to send you a medicatio. They can also provide online product information that you can print, as well as links to other sources of information about your medications and health condition.

What Are the Dangers of Buying Medications Online?

Many online pharmacies are legitimate businesses and, for the most part, you can use their services with the same confidence you have in your neighborhood pharmacy.

Unfortunately, there are numerous fraudulent or disreputable online pharmacies that may sell you medications illegally, do not follow proper procedures for filling your prescription, and may not protect your personal information.

Some websites that sell medications:

  • Are not licensed pharmacies or are not pharmacies at all.
  • Will sell you a prescription medication if you do not have a prescription, which is against the law.
  • May require you to fill out a questionnaire before ordering your medication and then use that information only to diagnose your problem. Without your healthcare provider’s oversight, the online pharmacy may give you a diagnosis that is not correct and sell you medication that is not right for you or your condition.
  • Do not provide you with information about your medication, or provide you with information that is inaccurate or misleading.
  • Do not protect your personal information, such as your credit card number and address.

Some medications sold online by these illicit online pharmacies:

  • Are fake
  • Have not been manufactured properly
  • Are too strong and may cause unwanted side effects
  • Are too weak and may not treat your health condition as expected
  • Have ingredients that may be dangerous to your health
  • Have expired or are out of date
  • Are not approved by the FDA and therefore have not been checked for safety and effectiveness
  • Are not safe to take with other medications or health products that you are using
  • Are not labeled, stored, or shipped correctly

How Can I Buy Medications Online Safely?

Here are some recommendations from the FDA on how to be a smart Internet shopper:

  • Use the FDA's Know Your Online Pharmacy tool. You can select your state and it will take you to your state's regulatory agency, where you'll be able to search to see if a particular pharmacy is licensed and in good standing.
  • Do not buy medications via a social media platform.
  • Do not buy from an online pharmacy that offers to prescribe a medication for the first time without a physical exam.
  • Do not buy from an online pharmacy that offers to sell you a prescription medication without a prescription from your healthcare provider or that sells drugs that are not approved by the FDA.
  • Only use sites that provide easy access to a licensed pharmacist who can answer your questions.
  • If you have health insurance, your best bet is to utilize a pharmacy in the insurer's provider network. This will ensure that you receive the network-negotiated pricing for the drug, and that the pharmacy has been vetted by your insurer and found to be legitimate.
  • Avoid sites that do not provide information about the company, including an address in the U.S. and a phone number to contact if you have a problem. The site should provide you with an easy way to read its privacy and security policies and practices.
  • Beware of sites that advertise a "new cure" for a serious disorder or a quick cure-all for a wide range of health conditions. These sites may include undocumented case histories of people claiming “miracle cures” or "amazing" medical results.
  • Beware of sites that claim the government, the medical profession, or research scientists have conspired to suppress a product.
  • If available, ask for the product in the manufacturer's original package. Closely inspect your medicine and its packaging upon receipt. If you notice anything unusual or if you are concerned about the safety of the medication, talk to your healthcare provider or a local pharmacist before taking the medication.

How Can I Report an Online Pharmacy?

If you find an Internet pharmacy that you think is illegally selling medications or if you have a complaint about the site, you can report your concerns to the FDA at:

Reporting Unlawful Sales of Medical Products on the Internet

And don’t forget: Buying your medications online can be easy and cost-efficient. Just make sure you do it safely!

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA launches global operation to crack down on websites selling illegal, potentially dangerous drugs; including opioids. October 23, 2018.

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. BeRxSafe: Your Source for Online Pharmacy Information.

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Considering an Online Pharmacy?

  4. Desai C. Online pharmacies: A boon or bane?Indian J Pharmacol. 2016;48(6):615-616. doi:10.4103/0253-7613.194865

  5. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Why Medicine Sold on Social Media Can Be Deadly. September 8, 2021.

By Michael Bihari, MD
Michael Bihari, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician, health educator, and medical writer, and president emeritus of the Community Health Center of Cape Cod.