The Independent Pharmacy

Our Guide To Malaria Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Donald Grant
Dr Donald GrantMB ChB DRCOG MRCGP Dip.orth.medGP & Clinical Advisor

Reviewed on 9 Apr 2024

The last thing you want to worry about when going abroad for your dream holiday is immunising yourself against a tropical disease. But without knowing which treatment is best for you, your dream holiday could turn into a nightmare.

Malaria is one of the greatest risks to your health while you’re abroad and there are many different treatments available for it. To help you decide which is best for you we’ve looked at the medications you can take to prevent malaria.

What is malaria?

Malaria is responsible for the death of more than 1 million people every year, with children under the age of 5 making up 70% of this total; this tropical disease is one of history's most prolific killers and, with more than 40% of the world’s population living in an area where they’re at risk of infection, it’s a risk to many holiday goers.

What causes malaria?

Malaria is caused by parasitic protozoans from the Plasmodium family. These are single-celled organisms (like bacteria) who share animal-like behaviours – as opposed to protophyta, who are single-celled creatures more akin to plants.

These micro-organisms are passed into the bloodstream of people via the saliva of the female Anopheles mosquito. Once in your bloodstream, these parasites then make there way to your liver to mature and reproduce.

There are five species of Plasmodium which cause malaria:

  • P. falciparum – causes most deaths from malaria
  • P. vivax – usually responsible for a milder type of malaria
  • P. ovale – usually responsible for a milder type of malaria
  • P. malariae – usually responsible for a milder type of malaria
  • P. knowlesi – does not often lead to disease in people

How do you know if you have malaria?

You will normally begin to display symptoms 7-25 days after you have been infected. Malaria symptoms include:

  • A high (feverish) temperature
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Shivering
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice
  • Convulsions
  • Retinal damage
  • Muscle pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • A general sense of feeling unwell
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Malarone 250mg/100mg Tablets
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Malarial fever

The development of symptoms most closely associated with malaria is paroxysm, whereby you experience coldness and shivers, before the onset of fever and sweating. This is a cyclical occurrence and leads to one of two fevers:

  • Tertian fever – this happens every 2 days and occurs if you’ve been infected by P. vivax and P. ovale
  • Quartan fever – this happens every 3 days and occurs if you’ve been infected by P. malariae

If you have been infected by P. falciparum you may have a near-continuous fever.

Will you die if you’ve been infected with malaria?

Malaria causes many severe and life-threatening complications:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) – your lungs are unable to provide your organs with the right amount of oxygen
  • Anaemia – your red blood cells become unable to take oxygen to your organs and muscles, causing you to feel faint, drowsy, and weak
  • Cerebral malaria – this causes your brain to swell. This can lead to fits, coma, or permanent brain damage
  • Dehydration – your body loses more fluids than it is taking in
  • Hypoglycaemia – low blood sugar
  • Jaundice and liver failure – the whites of your eyes and skin turns yellow. This is life-threatening
  • Kidney failure – this is life-threatening
  • Pulmonary oedema – fluid builds-up on your lungs
  • Shock – your blood pressure drops suddenly
  • Spleen – can rupture and swell

While contracting malaria can kill you, if the disease is diagnosed and treated early you have a much-increased chance of survival. However, if you take anti-malarial medication you reduce your chances of contracting malaria by 90%.

What malaria treatment is best for you?

There are many different preventative treatments which you can take for malaria. These are available following a consultation and can be bought from a high-street or online pharmacy.

The available malaria prevention treatments include:

You can find more detailed descriptions on how the various different malaria treatments work, along with the conditions in which you need to take them, on our malaria prevention page.

In which countries do you need to take malaria tablets?

The risk of malaria is at its peak in nations near the equator, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa. For detailed information on which countries carry the greatest risk of malarial infection, we recommend you review NHS Scotland's Fit for Travel website or Travel Health Pro.

Each country has different malaria advice, including different recommended malaria tablets, so it is important to check the specific advice for the area you are travelling to.

Malaria is a potentially life-threatening disease. In order to give yourself the best chance of avoiding catching malaria, we recommend that you consult your GP, pharmacist, or our dedicated support team long before you travel to a region which might where there is a risk of you becoming infected. We will be able to advise you which malaria treatment is best for you.

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