Counterfeit ADHD Medication Common On Internet, FDA Warns

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While any pharmaceutical purchased online may be counterfeit, of poor quality, or both, the FDA recently warned consumers with specific regard to the prescription drug Adderall, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) [1].

Authentic vs counterfeit Adderall

The price of prescription drugs can be financially uncomfortable — if not prohibitive — for consumers without prescription health coverage. Consequently, consumers may turn to Internet pharmacies for cheaper options. Many of these Internet companies claim to be located in countries with access to cheaper pharmaceuticals — Canada, for instance — though the FDA has found that the number of legitimate Canadian pharmacies selling prescription drugs on the Internet is only a small fraction of those companies that claim to be Canadian businesses. The FDA warns that as these Internet pharmacies are not U.S. government regulated, consumers may not be getting legitimate prescription drugs [2]. Further, even non-counterfeit prescription drugs from true foreign pharmacies may not be of identical quality to those sold in the U.S., notes the FDA. These warnings apply whether an online pharmacy requires a prescription or claims to sell legitimate pharmaceuticals “prescription-free.”

Legitimate Adderall, which is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), has been in short supply lately, making it a popular target for counterfeiters. Counterfeit pills may or may not look exactly like the legitimate medications they claim to be. As such, the safest bet for those who use Adderall and other prescription drugs is to purchase them from a brick-and-mortar pharmacy or the Internet extension of a brick-and-mortar pharmacy in the U.S. — verified internet pharmacy practice sites (VIPPS).

According to the FDA, some of the physical characteristics that have recently been seen in counterfeit Adderall include:

  • Incorrect color and incorrect or absent imprinting (see photo); real Adderall is light orange, and has a “dp” imprint on one side, and a “-30-” imprint on the other
  • Blister packaging; real Adderall comes in a bottle of loose pills
  • Misspellings on the package (“NDS” instead of “NDC,” “Aspartrte” instead of “Aspartate,” “Singel” instead of “Single” — see photo); legitimate medication, whether prescription or over-the-counter, is too closely regulated for misspellings to go unnoticed by the manufacturers and regulators

The concerns with the counterfeit Adderall are twofold. First, it might contain unknown contaminants. Additionally, it’s been found to lack the active ingredients in the real prescription drug (dextroamphetamine and amphetamine). Instead, the counterfeit pills contain pain medication (tramadol and acetaminophen), meaning that they aren’t able to provide any treatment for ADHD, and could cause a variety of adverse reactions and side effects.

Anyone who has purchased Adderall from any online source other than that associated with a legitimate U.S. pharmacy is advised by the FDA to stop using the pills and contact a health care provider for further guidance.

Dextroamphetamine and amphetamine — the active ingredients in Adderall — are in a class of medications called central nervous system stimulants. Adderall is thought to work by increasing the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine between synapses in the brain, resulting in increased mental focus and concentration.


  1. FDA warns consumers about counterfeit version of Teva’s Adderall. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2012 May 29.
  2. FDA Warns Consumers Not to Buy or Use Prescription Drugs from Various Canadian Websites that Apparently Sell Counterfeit Products. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2006 Aug 30.
About the Author

Kirstin Hendrickson, Ph.D., is a science journalist and faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University. She has a PhD in Chemistry, and studied mechanisms of damage to DNA during her graduate career. Kirstin also holds degrees in Zoology and Psychology. Currently, both in her teaching and in her writing, she’s interested in methods of communicating about science, and in the reciprocal relationship between science and society. She has written a textbook called Chemistry In The World, which focuses on the ways in which chemistry affects everyday life, and the ways in which humans affect each other and the environment through chemistry.