What are Fake Drugs? Counterfeit Medicines Dangers, Side Effects

The cost of pharmaceutical drugs can be staggering and often leads patients to consider cheaper alternatives. While generic drugs now offer a more affordable option, the counterfeit medication market is still thriving, and supplying patients globally.

A fake drug or counterfeit medication is any substance that is packaged or marketed in a deceptive manner. In most cases though, it involves tablets, capsules and liquids that look like the real drug or packaged to mimic the genuine item.

Counterfeit Medication – Manufacture, Supply and Purchase

Most counterfeit drugs are manufactured in developing countries, particularly Asian nations, where law enforcement and government regulations may be poor. However, an increasing amount of counterfeit drugs are now being manufactured in Africa, Latin America and eastern European countries. Some illegal laboratories do exist in developed nations, however, it is often cheaper for peddlers to smuggle in these drugs from developing nations due to the lower cost.

One of the common ways that many patients acquire fake drugs, apart from the local ‘black market’, is to purchase the counterfeit medication while holidaying overseas, usually in a developing country with poor regulations regarding the sale of pharmaceutical drugs. Another method that has been growing in popularity in recent years is purchasing these drugs online (on the internet) and having it shipped to the buyer’s country of residence.

Less frequently, unethical pharmacists and small grocery or spice stores may sell these counterfeit medicines to a select clientele. However, law enforcement agencies have been cracking down on these outlets as they are legitimate traders dealing in counterfeit medicines and are easier to trace due to a fixed address.

Purchasing a counterfeit medicine is illegal and depending on your country of residence and place of purchase, you may be committing a criminal offense.

What is in Counterfeit Medication?

Composition and Ingredients

Some counterfeit drugs are actually the genuine product which has been stolen from the manufacturer, transport companies, wholesalers or pharmacies. At times, the genuine product which has expired is repackaged with new expiry dates. While this may seem acceptable to the unsuspecting patient, it is important to bear in mind that the stability and concentration of the active ingredient may be affected due to time.

Other counterfeit drugs may contain the exact active ingredient but are manufactured by overseas laboratories where international patents are difficult to enforce. Since these companies have not invested in the research and development (R&D) costs and can source cheaper raw materials and labor, they are able to produce a cheaper product.

However, a significant portion of counterfeit drugs do not contain any active ingredient, may have herbal ingredients, animal parts or contain other chemicals, which may be toxic. Less frequently, some of these counterfeit drugs do contain the active ingredient in varying concentrations, some of which are significantly high and can cause serious adverse effects.

The one common factor among all these types of fake drugs is that they almost always resemble the genuine item including the form, packaging and labeling.

Types of Fake Drugs

Counterfeiters specializing in fake pharmaceutical drugs will manufacture a product to resemble any type of drug. Chronic medication is the most popular and can vary from hypertensive drugs to diabetes medicines. Antibiotics, corticosteroids, drugs for erectile dysfunction, cancer drugs and antiretrovirals for HIV/AIDS are also among the popular drugs that are counterfeited.

Dangers of Fake Drugs

Apart from committing a crime by purchasing these drugs, counterfeit medicines may pose a serious health risk.

Drugs with no active ingredients or containing other chemicals that have no therapeutic value or relevance for the condition that is being treated may accelerate the progression of the disease. With serious conditions, this can prove fatal. It can also complicate the condition which legal pharmaceutical drugs cannot treat afterwards – for example, bacterial drug resistance by using counterfeit antibiotics.

Counterfeit drugs with other toxic substances can cause serious side effects or result in poisoning which may be detrimental to your health or even fatal. Some drugs may be manufactured in unhygienic conditions and contain dangerously high levels of pathogenic bacteria or fungi.

Side Effects of Fake Drugs

Legitimate pharmaceutical drugs may have side effects but if your doctor is fully aware of your medical history and current health status, the chances of experiencing side effects are reduced. With counterfeit medicines, these side effects are more likely to occur since the exact composition of these drugs are unknown.

Allergic reactions and gastrointestinal disturbances like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, are among the common side effects. Heavy metals and toxic compounds may cause symptoms of poisoning including changes in heart function, blood glucose levels, gas perfusion (transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood), dyspnea and even organ failure.

Many patients with a chronic condition may notice an exacerbation of the signs and symptoms associated with their condition.

Related Information

  1. Counterfeit Medicines. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)