Fake Prescription Pills Are Real Danger

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An illustration of a pill capsule filled with question marks.

Counterfeit prescription drugs are pills that look like prescription medications, but may actually be something different.

Earlier this year, after taking pills they thought were the pain reliever Norco (hydrocodone), nearly 40 people in Sacramento, California overdosed, and nine of them died. The pills were likely bought on the street. They looked a lot like Norco and even had the same markings, but they actually contained very high levels of fentanyl, a powerful opioid pain medication that’s about 50 times stronger than heroin.

The same thing has been happening all around the country: people getting poisoned from counterfeit prescription drugs containing fentanyl.

It’s gotten so bad the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local health agencies have issued safety alerts to warn people about fentanyl and counterfeit pills containing it. The pills can look like different popular pain relievers—like Norco or Percocet (oxycodone)—or even other types of drugs like the sedative Xanax.

Prescriptions or poison?

When medications are sold on the street or given by friends and don’t come directly from a pharmacy or a doctor, there’s no way to know what’s in them. The pills might contain something entirely different from what they’re supposed to, or have extra ingredients that change their effects, or contain the wrong dose of medicine.

The people most in danger of being poisoned by counterfeit pills are those who are misusing a medication and getting it illegally. This includes people with an addiction, who buy medication from a dealer to satisfy their craving and overcome their withdrawal symptoms.

Talk to your doctor

It’s dangerous to use prescription drugs for any reason except why they were prescribed to you by your doctor, or to take pills that weren’t prescribed to you. Misusing medications is one way that people become addicted to them.

Dangers like overdose can happen even when the pills do contain what they’re supposed to. And using any drug that doesn’t come from a medical office, hospital, or pharmacy is especially dangerous. Even if they look like prescription drugs, they could be tainted or fake—and that could be deadly.

Spread the word: fake prescription pills are a real danger.

Learn more: what are the real facts about prescription opioids?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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