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Students warned against self-prescribing: you're not doctors yet

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As we head into another essay season, filled with deadlines and stressful nights, library sessions and head banging (both figuratively and, at times, literally), we can all feel overwhelmed. 

For some people, this stress is more debilitating, leading to a continuous state of anxiety,  panic attacks, lack of sleep, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating. 

In a world where we are taught that we must succeed and that every step of our education will impact how we do in the job market, students sometimes choose not to go to a doctor when they need help. Afraid of being labelled with anxiety or depression, and thus the stigmas that go with them, they sometimes choose to handle the situation on their own. While not the wisest choice, it is certainly understandable, as there is such pressure to succeed now, especially for those with massive student debts that they will soon need to pay. As such the idea of admitting your issue in a job application, as requested, is daunting, as statistics often show employers are hesitant to hire those with mental illness.

Mental illness is not something you can ignore, and problems relating to these issues will continue to arise for those who suffer from them. This has led to a significant increase in online purchasing of prescription medication. Unfortunately, as with any flourishing market space, there are those who will take advantage. Indeed, as of now, over half the medications sold online are fake, and can lead to problems such as heart attacks, strokes, and death. Additionally, not all websites that sell medication are legitimate, and dodgier sites can lead to credit card fraud and identity theft.

Thankfully, a new campaign run by the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) is highlighting these dangers, in the hopes of warning consumers away from such purchases. 

The MHRA is running the #FakeMeds campaign to help students protect their health and money, with tips on how to avoid potentially dangerous or useless medicines sold by illegal online suppliers.

According to the MHRA Head of Enforcement, Alastair Jeffrey, “Purchasing medicines outside the regulated supply chain has inherent dangers as there is no assurance of quality and standards. Medicines purchased in this way could have the wrong active ingredient, no active ingredient, or indeed the incorrect dosage.

Prescription only medicines are, by their very nature, potent and should only be prescribed by a doctor or appropriate healthcare professional. We would advise people not to buy medicines from unregulated sources as they pose a danger to their health.”

“Self-diagnosis and self-medication can be dangerous. If you have a concern about your health, visit your GP, get a correct diagnosis and if medicines are prescribed, buy them from a legitimate source.”

But have no fear, as the MHRA have come up with a list of ways to protect yourself. 

These simple steps can be found below:

1. Look for the distance-selling logo

All online retailers of medicines, operating legally in the EU, must display it. The most reliable way to ensure you are buying products from a registered and approved online seller of medicines is to click here to check the approved list.

2. Look for the CE mark on medical devices

A manufacturer displaying a CE mark on their medical device is saying their product complies with the essential regulatory requirements, designed to make sure products work as they’re supposed to and are acceptably safe.

3. “Natural” does not mean safe

Products that claim to be ‘herbal’ or ‘all-natural’ can actually contain chemical ingredients. In fact, thousands of slimming products are seized each year which claim to be herbal, but actually contain sibutramine. This is a medicine which is so dangerous (causing both strokes and heart attacks) it was removed from sale in this country. Similarly, there are countless ‘herbal’ erectile dysfunction medications available online that could seriously harm your health.

When in doubt, check any medicine for a Product Licence (PL) number or Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) number to make sure it is safe.

4. Check for secure payment options

When entering personal information, look out for a small padlock in the address bar or elsewhere in the frame of your browser (not the webpage itself). This will indicate that the information you enter will be encrypted and isn’t being stolen. If the padlock symbol is not present, do not enter your information. This will help you avoid any private information, such as your card details, being stolen. 

5. Check the small print

Unfortunately, as we all know, there are people out there who will do anything for a quick buck, including trick you. As such you have to be on your guard, especially when using sites that seem dodgy. Scam sites often encourage you to sign up, committing you to hand over your money for a “trial”. In fact, you could be agreeing to a schedule of large regular payments from your account for useless or dangerous products. Always read the small print carefully so you know what your signing up to and won’t have any nasty surprises when you check your account.

6. Be wise to gimmick marketing

Terms like “detox” and “fat-melting” are meaningless, without any scientific or medical basis. However, they are the kind of words popular with those selling dodgy slimming pills. Don’t be one of the people who fall for this trick!

7. If they tell you it’s safe, they might be lying

This one might seem obvious, but it’s worth noting all the same. No matter what the vendor tells you, do not, under any circumstances, consume a product if it arrives in packaging whose label reads “not for human consumption”. You have no way of knowing how your body is going to react – especially if the product has been designed for livestock. No reassurances in the world are worth taking the risk!

8. Don’t self-diagnose

While it is tempting to Google symptoms and self-diagnose, there are many things which could be wrong with you, some serious, most not so much. As such it is far more beneficial to visit your healthcare professional if you believe you need medical treatment for something. After all, a doctor can:

a) give you their expert opinion about your condition and help work out the right treatment for you, in light of your medical history

b) prescribe you medicines which you can be sure have gone through the proper tests for safety and effectiveness

Additionally, they will be able to recognise if your issue is isolated, or whether it is a symptom of something else of which you were not previously aware.

9. Dodgy website design can mean a dodgy website

Always pay attention to the website! If it looks amateurish or like it could be a scam don’t put any information in and leave as soon as possible. Scam websites will have signs such as poor design, pop-ups and spelling and grammar errors. It is also wise to check reviews, as they will often highlight issues and let you know if a site is a scam. Unfortunately, scammers are known to add their own fake reviews, of which you must beware. The consumer association Which? have put together a guide on how to spot genuine online reviews, which should be helpful when looking out for scams. 

10. If in doubt, report it!

If you suspect a website of selling fake medication or think you’ve bought something fake, report it to the MHRA!

Visit https://fakemeds.campaign.gov.uk  for tips on buying medicines safely online and how to avoid unscrupulous sites.

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