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Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

A prescription is being filled at a community health center in Aurora, Colo., March 27, 2012. Getty Images

A prescription is filled at a community health center in Aurora, Colo., March 27, 2012.(CBS News) Recent headlines about fake versions of pharmaceuticals such as Avastin flooding the market show how tough it can be to tell if your medication is safe. In the U.S. alone, there have already been three instances where fake cancer drugs and blood thinners were discovered.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physicians prescribe or give 2.3 billion different kids of drugs a year, and medication is necessary in 74 percent of doctor's visits. Not only is the potential for counterfeit drugs to make its way to your cabinet a real threat, but properly prescribed medications can pose a safety threat if not taken properly.

Roger Bate, an economist who has written several books about the problem of counterfeit medications including "Phake: The Deadly World of Falsified and Substandard Medicines," has followed the dangerous trend for years. His recent work focuses on tracking down counterfeit and substandard medicines, and he consults organizations on the subject. With help from Bate, here are eight safety tips to help make sure what you're putting in your body will help cure you, not kill you.

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

Take your medication iStockphoto

Take your own medication

Take your medicationWhen your doctor prescribes you medicine, he or she has reviewed your information to ensure that the medication is appropriate for your illness. Taking someone else's medicine, or giving your pills to a friend, can be dangerous, as it might react to other medications or conditions you or they have - even if it seems that you have the same disease.

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

Macro of prescription pill bottles of large quantities with blank labels being held by medical professional in background; copy space iStockphoto

Only buy medicines from a licensed pharmacy

prescription pill bottlesBate says you should only pick up prescriptions from a licensed pharmacy. Check with the National Association of the Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) or your state's Pharmacy Board for the address of a brick-and-mortar licensed pharmacy.

Ordering online? Some online pharmacies may claim to be credentialed, but the credentialing agencies may be fake, says Bate. The NABP also provides a list of legitimate web-based pharmacies consumers can check. You can also visit LegitScript.com as another resource. These two groups only approve sites based in the United States, which will sell FDA approved medicines. The prices charged at these licensed online sites are similar to physical pharmacies and may be reimbursable by your insurance provider depending on your insurance.

If you're abroad and need to pick up a prescription, it's best to ask the manager of your hotel or hostel whether there are any licensed chain pharmacies in the country. Research indicates that chain pharmacies are more reliable when it comes to the medication they sell. PharmacyChecker.com has a convenient list of pharmacy associations and guilds according to country so it could be a good place to double check that the place you are getting your medication from is legit.

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

Does the pill look different from the ones you've been getting? Didn't you just take a dose? If there's ever any doubt about whether you are being given the right pill at the right dosage, ask. istockphoto

Check what your medication looks like

Check online for what the pill/capsule and the medicine packaging looks like before you go to the pharmacy.

For all pills/capsules, ask yourself:

- Do these pills look okay?
- Are they crumbling?
- Do they look discolored?
- Are they the correct color and shape, and have the proper stamps or logos on them?

If you are unsure about any of these questions, go back to the pharmacist or your doctor to double check. This may seem like a lot of work, but once you swallow the pill, you may be at risk.

Bate also warns that sometimes the same drug sold in U.S. and Europe may look different. For example, Nexium is a capsule in U.S. and a tablet in Europe. Foreign medications may come in a blister package - a box with each pill or capsule in aluminum foil - so don't be surprised - it doesn't  necessarily mean that it's a fake medication.

If you find yourself in a very poor and remote location,  you may be better off taking the medication life-threatening situations even if you can't double check it in , says Bate. There is a risk, however, so buyer beware.

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

You might say the United States is a nation of pill poppers. Many adults take at least one prescription drug, but it's not uncommon for older people to be on five or more medications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even with insurance, drugs can be pricey. Without insurance, the cost may feel so exorbitant you may be tempted to skip or skimp on medication. Don't. There are ways to rein in the cost of prescription drugs, say our friends at Health.com, and skipping medication can be disastrous and ultimately more costly than the drugs themselves. More from Health.com: 11 ways to save money on healthy food istockphoto

Read the instructions - and follow them

Even good quality medicines can be dangerous if taken incorrectly. Some medicines must be taken with food, and others don't require a full stomach. Drinking alcohol may also react with some medicines. Even seemingly harmless grapefruit juice can increase the body's absorption of certain chemicals, resulting in drug overdose if consumed with the wrong medicine. Says Bate, "Always read the label!"

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

Medication can be enormously helpful to children with ADHD. In fact, it helps in four out of five cases. But despite what some parents think, pills are not a panacea. They are only part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes education about the disorder, lifestyle changes, increased structure, lots of exercise, good nutrition, and coaching or tutoring if needed - plus a steady stream of positive human contact. IStockPhoto

Check expiration dates

pills, pill, medicine, prescription, drug, drugs, overdose, generic, stockFind out when the pills expire and discard them as soon as they are no longer effective. Taking expired medicines - even over the counter medications - can be dangerous, Bate says. Check each prescription bottle or blister pack to make sure it's still okay to use.

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

Antibiotics can treat some bacterial infections, but these types of infections are usually not what ails your child. "Colds cannot be treated with an antibiotic since colds are caused by a virus. Antibiotics do not have any effect on a cold and are not a useful treatment," says Dr. Cardiello. Plus, unnecessary antibiotic use can cause immunity to the medication and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Unfortunately, there are no antivirals for the cold-causing virus. Flu antivirals may be given to kids with conditions like asthma that make it harder for them to fight the flu, says Dr. Cardiello. More from Health.com: 12 vaccines your child needs istockphoto

Don't sacrifice safety for a lower cost

Too-good-to-be-true offers from spam emails are probably just that. Of the 10,000-plus web-based drug sellers, the vast majority are unlicensed and are not professional pharmacies.

If you are uninsured or under-insured, you may be tempted to look overseas for your medications. It is illegal to import large quantities of medicines into U.S., but the Food and Drug Administration does not prevent personal importation of prescription medicines for three months supply or less. If you are opting to do this, please make sure that you are using credentialed pharmacy. Sites like PharmacyChecker.com or the Canadian Internet Pharmacy Association offer lists of credentialed foreign pharmacies.

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

Skip it. Full-body computed-tomography (CT) scans, which can cost $1,000, have been touted as a way to detect early signs of cancer and heart disease. But if you're healthy, they're of no proven benefit. The American College of Radiology warns that they can lead to costly and potentially risky follow-up exams to check out harmless abnormalities that otherwise would have gone undetected. And then there's the risk of radiation. "The average radiation dose from medical imaging has increased more than six-fold over the last 30 years, with CT scans being the largest contributor," says Dr. David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. "We've found that full body CT scans expose patients to far more radiation than conventional plain film X-rays and consequently a higher lifetime risk of cancer deaths, about one in 1,250 for a 45-year-old adult and one in 1,700 for a 65-year-old adult," he said. istockphoto

Talk to your doctor before you travel

patient, doctor, nutritionist, talking, medical, stock, 4x3Make sure to visit your doctor before traveling abroad. Besides checking if you need a necessary vaccine, it might be helpful to ask them for a prescription of antibiotics or any other medications they think you may need. Travel clinics are usually well-versed in what you need depending where you are traveling in the world. Don't leave it until the last minute.

Pill pitfalls: Tips to make sure your medication is safe

Yes, antiviral pills, liquids, and inhaled powders are available to treat flu symptoms. But these prescription-only products - Tamiflu and Relenza - are considered a second line of defense against the flu. And they tend to work only if they are taken within the first day or two of coming down with influenza. istockphoto

If you can't get a prescription, don't take the medicine

Pills and a Pill Bottle.Do not buy from non-credentialed sites just because you are too embarrassed to get a prescription, Bate says. It may not be easy to ask for a prescription for Viagra or diet pills, but it is better to summon up the courage than risk a potentially deadly alternative just because you think it's what you need.