It is well-known that illegal drug use can be dangerous and even fatal, but there is something that can make any drug use—even necessary drug use—dangerous, and it’s something that many people aren’t properly educated about: counterfeit drugs. What are counterfeit drugs and how big of a problem are they? In short, counterfeit drugs are fake drugs sold under a product name to lead buyers to believe they are real.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Counterfeiting can apply to both brand name and generic products, where the identity of the source is mislabeled in a way that suggests that it is the authentic approved product. Counterfeit products may include products without the active ingredient, with an insufficient or excessive quantity of the active ingredient, with the wrong active ingredient, or with fake packaging.”

The prevalence of counterfeit drugs is difficult to determine, but experts say that the issue is more common in developing countries than in countries like the U.S. This is because the U.S. has “a strict regulatory framework that governs the production of drug products and the distribution chain, and enforcement against violators,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In order to get a better idea of how this changes from country to country, the International Criminal Police Organization claims that “1 per cent of medicines available in the developed world are likely to be counterfeit. This figure rises to 10 percent globally, but in some areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America counterfeit goods can form up to 30 percent of the market.”

Though not as common as elsewhere, counterfeiting does still occur in the United States, so it is important to be aware of the dangers and signs.[/cs_text]

What are the dangers of counterfeit drugs?

Counterfeit drugs are dangerous for a number of reasons, both for people who have been prescribed the drug and for those who may be abusing it. These are some of the reasons that counterfeit drugs are problematic:

Not enough of the active ingredient

Often, counterfeit medications do not have the right amount of the active ingredient necessary to treat a condition. Someone who needs a drug in order to survive may be given a counterfeit version, meaning they are not getting the right medication to treat their condition. This could lead to deterioration in health and even death. According to American Health and Drug Benefits, “In the case of the counterfeit drug that has no active ingredient, the drug fails to help the patient get better, which can ultimately harm the patient. In the case of antibiotics, for example, this can promote antibiotic resistance and the use of stronger antibiotics, because physicians would believe that the first-line drug was not working, not knowing that the patient had been taking a counterfeit drug.”

Sanitary risks

Counterfeit drugs are typically not manufactured correctly, leaving them susceptible to pesticides. According to the Huffington Post, “Unlike authentic medicines, which are manufactured with authentic pharmaceutical ingredients in clean facilities under highly regulated, quality-controlled processes, these fake medicines are typically made at unregulated sites under extremely unsanitary conditions and may contain dangerous substances like pesticides.”

Toxic ingredients

Because those people making counterfeit drugs may not have access to the correct ingredients, the drugs may contain substances not intended to enter the human body, such as boric acid, lead paint, floor wax, and rat poison. These can be fatal when enough of the substance is consumed. In fact, the American Health and Drug Benefits states that as of 2012, more than 500 children around the world had died from counterfeit cough syrup that contained antifreeze.

What precautions can be taken to avoid counterfeit drugs?

Identifying a counterfeit drug can be difficult, as manufacturers have become talented at mimicking the appearance of the real drug. But there are a few precautions that can be taken to avoid taking counterfeit drugs.

  • Avoid buying drugs from internet pharmacies. Many places that sell counterfeit drugs appear to have legitimate and professional websites. But lacking a physical address is a red flag. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 50 percent of drugs sold through websites concealing their physical address are counterfeit.
  • Do not take drugs you are not prescribed. A prescription is the safest way to be sure you are receiving the correct drug. If you are obtaining them illegally, you are more likely to buy counterfeits.
  • If a medication has a different physical appearance than what you are used to taking, throw it out. This could mean it is a different size, color or even weight. Also, if it tastes differently or dissolves in a different manner than normal, this is a red flag as well.
  • If you have been prescribed a drug and are wary of its legitimacy, bring it to your local pharmacy to have it checked.
  • Report illegitimate online pharmacies by visiting this site.

The counterfeit drug industry is growing, meaning that precautions have to be taken. The more you educate yourself, the more likely you are to avoid counterfeit prescriptions.

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By – Beth Leipholtz
Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. She enjoys writing about her recovery and the realities of getting sober young on her blog, Life To Be Continued, and as a contributing author for The Recovery Village. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for updates. Read more

Blackstone, Erwin; Fuhr, Joseph; Pociask, Steven. The Health and Economic Effects of Counterfeit Drugs. American Health and Drug Benefits. June 2014. Accessed 22 January 2017.

Clark, John. Gambling With Your Health: The Dangers Of Counterfeit Drugs. The Huffington Post. 23 April 2012. Accessed 22 January 2016.

Counterfeit Drugs Questions and Answers. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed 22 January 2017.

Pharmaceutical crime: The dangers. International Criminal Police Organization. Accessed 22 January 2017.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.