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Malaria treatment

malaria treatment spray on foot
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Find out how malaria is treated

Malaria is a serious tropical disease which is spread by mosquitoes. It is caused by a type of parasite known as plasmodium (there are five that cause malaria in humans).

Malaria is found in more than one hundred countries around the world, but is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, South Asia and South East Asia. Popular holiday destinations which have high-risk malaria zones include India, Kenya, and South Africa.

Anyone travelling to malaria risk areas should practise careful mosquito bite avoidance such as the use of an effective repellent on exposed skin. In high risk malaria zones it is important to take antimalarials, also known as malaria tablets. Currently, antimalarials are the only preventative medicine available to combat the spread of malaria. Taking these tablets correctly for the prescribed period will reduce your risk of malaria by about 90%. This means you should still practise mosquito bite prevention.

If you end up contracting malaria, you will need to start receiving treatment quickly. With prompt treatment, most people make a complete recovery.

What is the treatment for malaria?

There is no cure for malaria, however treatment for malaria begins with a diagnosis. Normally symptoms develop seven to 18 days after infection, however it may take longer.

The symptoms of malaria include:

  • a fever
  • headache
  • sweating
  • chills
  • vomiting

A key indicator that you could have malaria is that your fever is coming and going in cycles (chills and shivering, followed by fever, and then sweating).

What should I do if I have symptoms?

If you have spent time in a malaria zone and you begin experiencing these symptoms you should visit a doctor as soon as possible. They will observe your symptoms and carry out a blood test to confirm malaria.

The precise treatment you receive will depend upon the nature of your illness. In deciding upon your treatment and the malaria drugs that will work best for you, your doctor will consider factors such as:

  • How severe your symptoms are
  • How old you are
  • Whether you’re pregnant
  • Which plasmodia parasite you have been infected with
  • Where you were infected
  • Whether you took antimalarial tablets to prevent malaria

Treatment with antimalarials

Antimalarials are the go-to treatment for malaria, however if you were taking malaria tablets when you contracted the disease you will need to be treated with a different tablet.

Your doctor may end up giving you a combination of antimalarials, in the form of tablets or capsules. In more serious cases, malaria is treated through an intravenous drip in hospital.

The most dangerous malaria parasite is called p. falciparum. If you have contracted this type of malaria you will usually need to stay in a hospital for your treatment and to monitor your condition carefully.

Pregnancy and malaria treatment

For pregnant women, malaria can be far more dangerous. The disease can lead to serious complications for both mother and baby. For this reason, pregnant women are strongly advised to avoid malaria zones when travelling.

If you are pregnant and you must travel through a malaria zone, you need to be extra careful to avoid mosquito bites. It’s also very important that you take the recommended antimalarials after an individual risk assessment by a travel health professional. Different drugs may be appropriate depending on your destination, medical history and stage of pregnancy.

Malaria emergency treatment

Swift treatment of malaria is not always possible for travellers who become infected whilst abroad.

If you think you will be travelling through a high-risk malaria area and will be over 24 hours from medical treatment, you should consider obtaining standby emergency malaria treatment.

If your doctor thinks you require emergency malaria treatment (which you can take until you have access to proper medical care) you should make sure you understand how to store your medication, how much to take, how to take it and when it is appropriate to take.

Emergency malaria treatment can cause some unpleasant side effects such as:

  • nausea
  • diarrhoea
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • rashes

You should discuss these potential side effects with your doctor before you leave the country so that, if you do have to use the treatment, you are well prepared.

How long does malaria treatment take?

How long malaria treatment takes depends upon your symptoms and how quickly you can receive treatment. It can take between three to seven days for the treatment to rid your body of the parasites. Your doctor will monitor your bloods while you have treatment to make sure it is working as it should. The type of parasite you were infected with will also influence whether the infection could come back in the future. To prevent this your doctor will be able to create a treatment plan for your individual needs to stop the infection from returning.

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Can you survive malaria without treatment?

Malaria is a serious disease that can be life-threatening if it is not treated quickly enough. Without treatment malaria can disrupt the blood supply to vital organs and the plasmodium falciparum parasite can lead to kidney failure, seizures and death if not promptly treated. That’s why it is so important that if you have been in a malaria zone and have shown symptoms of malaria you should visit a doctor as soon as possible.

How can I protect myself from malaria?

If you are travelling to a malaria zone you should make sure you are properly protected by taking antimalarials and practising insect bite prevention.

You can get advice from your GP or a doctor at a travel clinic, or find out which antimalarials are effective in the area you are visiting by consulting the site NaTHNaC or visit a MASTA travel clinic for a face-to-face consultation. Malaria tablets are not free on the NHS, however you can obtain a prescription for them from your GP and collect them from a pharmacy.