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Online Pharmacies: Dangerous Prescription?

Many of us get them every day: e-mails offering popular prescription drugs online at discount prices.

You may toss them into the spam file, but millions of Americans buy what they're selling - and could be putting themselves in danger, says Early Show medical contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall.

Why are so many people turning to the Internet for prescription drugs? More and more people are finding themselves without health insurance coverage, unable to afford the expensive drugs they need, and the Web appears to offer a cheaper alternative, Marshall explains.

But keep in mind, the Food and Drug Administration says, if you ask for generics, chances are you'll pay less at the drug store than you will if you order brand names online.

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Then there are people who say they're too embarrassed or too busy to get to the doctor, and that buying online is easier and more private. But that creates another serious problem: People are looking to the Internet to diagnose their own illnesses, then searching for the recommended drugs online, leaving doctors completely out of the equation - a very dangerous practice.

There've been some truly terrible stories about the consequences of buying drugs from Web sites, Marshall points out. One man who was suffering from severe back pain received an e-mail offering Xanax and Ultam, two pain-killers. He took one of each tablet, suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. The tablets contained four times the usual starting dosage. A woman who decided she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome bought steroids online, and ended up with severe cataracts, so severe they couldn't be removed. We're hearing more and more stories like this.

In some cases, the problem is the pills are either placebos, made of sugar with only a minimal amount of the drug in them. But some have been found to contain other substances that are dangerous, even potentially deadly. One offshore drugmaker was manufacturing Viagra tablets that were 85-percent cement. There are reports of Viagra that is actually made of vodka. Allergy medications were found to contain steroids, to suppress the symptoms. You just don't know what these counterfeit pills may be made of.

How can you tell the difference between a legit site and an unregulated, rogue one?

Most national drugstore chains, such as CVS or Walgreens, have their own Web sites, and they are completely legitimate, Marshall notes. Most Canadian sites are considered safe, as they are regulated by that government. But sites you become aware of from unsolicited, spam e-mails, could be operating offshore and be completely unregulated. Stay away from them.

ADVICE FROM MARSHALL FOR PEOPLE SHOPPING ONLINE FOR DRUGS

CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR

We can't say it strongly enough. Don't diagnose your own illness and prescribe your own care. See a doctor, and get a prescription.

AVOID SITES THAT DON'T INSIST ON A PRESCRIPTION

Many of those sites will ask for a doctor's name and nothing else. A recent study showed that only 11 percent of online pharmacy sites ask for a prescription. Most will send you the prescription drugs with no prescription. The site should ask for a prescription, should post its name and address, and have a licensed pharmacist you can speak to. If it doesn't, stay away.

ONLY USE LICENSED ONLINE PHARMACIES

To be sure it's licensed, you can check with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy in your state. They license online pharmacies, and can tell you if the site you're looking at is safe.

AVOID SITES BASED IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES

There are sites based in places such as Belize, Thailand or China, and you don't know where the drugs are coming from, or whether they're counterfeit. That's where the danger lies, so you must be careful.

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