Counterfeit medicines: Recognize & Avoid

Until now, counterfeit medicines have been a problem especially in the Third World countries. Since more and more medicines are ordered via the internet, the problem is increasingly spreading in the European countries as well. But how can consumers recognize and avoid counterfeit medicines?

In the Third World countries, an estimated half of all medicines in circulation are counterfeit. Unreliable online suppliers are bringing the problem to Europe as well. Yet Sweden is one of the most reliable countries in the world when it comes to the safety of medicines, because in this country medicines are constantly checked by the authorities and the manufacturing companies.

But it is also possible to get counterfeit medicines here in Europe. That’s why the EU Counterfeiting Directive was launched in 2011, which requires that medicines in EU countries be packaged and traded in a way that is safe from counterfeiting. By February 2019, the EU member states developed a counterfeit protection system.

Such protection against counterfeiting can include, for example, that medicines are provided with a serial number that must be scanned when sold. Duplicate serial numbers will then be recognized immediately and can be reported.

Medicine counterfeiting – what does it mean?

The term medicine counterfeiting means that it does not correspond to the original in one or more respects – and that with the intention of making a profit from it.

Counterfeit medicines may have

  • no active ingredient,
  • the wrong active ingredient,
  • the wrong amount of the active ingredient, or
  • expired active ingredient.


  • the outer or inner packaging may be falsified,
  • the package leaflet may be falsified,
  • the name or origin may be falsified.

What can happen?

In the best case, counterfeit medicines have no effect at all. But if it is a drug that is urgently needed to treat a serious disease such as cancer or AIDS, the consequences can be serious:

  • If the medicine has no effect, there is no therapy.
  • If the drug contains the wrong active ingredient, the wrong therapy will be given.
  • If it contains too little active ingredient, the therapy is insufficient.
  • If there is too much active ingredient, there may be an overdose.

All these points can result in damage to health and, in the worst case, can be life-threatening.

Recognizing counterfeit medicines

At first glance, it is usually not so easy to recognize a counterfeit medicine. But if you pay attention to the following, you can distinguish counterfeit medicines from the original. Look closely at the packaging:

  • Do you find errors in spelling and grammar?
  • What is the condition of the packaging?

Check the manufacturing and expiry dates:

  • Do the dates on the outer packaging match those on the inner packaging?
  • What is the condition of the medicine? This is harder to tell, but if you already know the medicine, you may notice if it doesn’t smell or look the same as usual.

Contact your doctor or pharmacist as soon as you notice that something is not going as usual, for example, that the effect of the medicine is missing after taking it.

How do I protect myself from counterfeit medicines?

In Sweden, it is relatively easy to protect yourself from fake medicines:

  1. Buy medicines at your local pharmacy instead of over the internet.
  2. If you want to order online: Make sure that the mail-order pharmacy is listed in the register of legal pharmacies like Pharmastore.
  3. Be careful if a mail-order company offers medicines without a prescription, even though they are prescription-only preparations.
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