Some travelers worry a lot about the diseases they can catch while traveling. After all, no one wants to be seriously ill when they are far from home and from their own doctor or clinic.
One disease that a lot of travelers have heard about is malaria. Here’s what they need to know to stay safe from malaria, no matter where or when they are traveling.
Malaria is a serious condition. Most people who get malaria get it when a parasite causing the illness gets transmitted to their body via a mosquito bite. Very rarely, malaria can be transferred from a certain type of macaque directly to a human.
It can also be transferred via a blood transfusion or if people share needles while doing drugs. A mother who gets infected can even pass it to her unborn child in utero. It is not, however, sexually transmitted.
About 400,000 people die from malaria every year. Hence, it’s important to understand the condition in order to avoid it or get effective treatment if it is contracted. Once a parasite that causes malaria is inside the human body, it moves to the liver. It can stay dormant there for months or years, making it possible to get malaria long after a mosquito bite. When the parasite is finally activated in the liver, it multiplies quickly. Eventually, it infiltrates red blood cells.
Parasites continue to multiply inside the cells, eventually causing them to burst open. Since the red blood cells carry oxygen, this means that the body isn’t getting the oxygen it needs.
All of this means that malaria makes people feel very, very ill. Anyone with suspected malaria should seek medical attention because treatment is necessary to resolve the situation.
Malaria is most common in places where it is very warm, where there is a lot of rain, and where the humidity is generally high. These are tropical and subtropical regions around the world. Most of the countries with the highest prevalence of malaria are in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa.
However, numbers are also high in Central and South America and Southeast Asia. Some parts of Oceania, like Papua New Guinea and parts of Indonesia, also have very high amounts of malaria. In countries that are closer to the equator and that have a lot of rainfall, the risk of malaria is greater. The transmission usually occurs year-round and is more intense than it is in other locations.
Malaria can have a variety of symptoms based on what type of parasite is causing the illness. A number of other factors are also involved. Most people who get malaria are bitten by an infected mosquito. They will experience a high fever with violent chills. Some people feel sick all the time, while others have times when they feel better before getting sick again. Many people with malaria experience a general feeling of discomfort. They may feel achy, tired, or just overall unwell.
Headaches and fatigue are also symptoms of malaria. Many people attribute these to fever and chills, though they can be present even if or when those symptoms are gone. Others experience stomach and intestinal problems when they have malaria. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are all common indications that the disease is present.
These may or may not be accompanied by abdominal pain. If the liver is full of parasites, it can actually ache, causing abdominal pain unrelated to nausea, etc. Some patients complain of muscle and joint pain with malaria. It’s unknown exactly how or why the condition causes this, but it’s common enough that many experience it. It may also cause:
When malaria begins to get worse, many people turn yellow. This is called jaundice and occurs when there aren’t enough red blood cells. A patient’s nail beds and the whites of their eyes should be checked. If these are yellow, it’s time to get emergency help!
If left untreated or allowed to get severe, malaria can cause the kidneys to fail and the brain to seize. This can lead to confusion, falling into a coma, and, eventually, death.
It’s important to keep malaria in mind as a possible cause for symptoms like this even long after a trip to a high-prevalence area is long over. Most of the time, symptoms appear within 7-10 days of exposure via mosquito. However, since the parasite can lie dormant, they can also appear much, much later.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best way to combat malaria is through diligent prevention of mosquito bites. By taking this approach, one can significantly decrease their risk of contracting the disease.
Individuals who travel to an area where malaria is common should keep their arms and legs covered. Additionally, they must apply insect repellant when traveling to a country where Malaria infection is prevalent. To avoid mosquito bites, it’s best that the sleeping area is treated with insecticide.
There are a wide variety of medications that can be given to prevent malaria. Travelers will need to work with their healthcare provider to get these, as they require a prescription. Many of these will need to be started several weeks before traveling in order to allow them to work properly.
Last-minute malaria prevention meds are available for travelers who need to leave suddenly, ensuring they can still get protection. Most of these prevention medications are safe and can be taken for an extended period of time. However, nearly all of them have side effects in at least some of the people who take them.
The side effects of Malaria medication can include:
Unless these are severe, medical experts recommend working through them rather than stopping the medication.
Only frequent, regular exposure to malaria parasites can cause immunity, and even people with this exposure sometimes get malaria. There is one malaria vaccine, but it only affects one of the parasites that can cause the condition and is still undergoing research.
Beyond medications, the best way to avoid getting malaria is to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos. Bites are more common at night, though, of course, travelers can get them any time. Some people believe air conditioning can reduce the incidence of Malaria. Travelers should wear high-powered mosquito repellant at all times. They should also wear long sleeves and long pants and make sure that the skin is not left uncovered.
If possible, they should ensure that the fabric covering them is tough enough that mosquitoes cannot bite them through it. At night, travelers should make sure they close all windows and doors to the place where they’re staying. Then, they should cover themselves and their bed in a mosquito net. These prevent mosquitoes from infiltrating a bed at night.
If travelers think they have malaria, see a doctor right away, even if they’re still traveling or back home. Doctors will usually conduct a general physical exam and then order blood tests. The tests will tell them if the parasite is present in their blood and what type of parasite they have.
Tests can show if a traveler has a drug-resistant disease, needing different treatment options. Next, the doctor will decide what kind of treatment the person will receive. This can depend on the parasite they have, how severe their symptoms are, and their age. Pregnant women will also be treated for malaria differently than others will.
There are a number of medications that can be used to treat malaria, including chloroquine phosphate. This is the preferred treatment. However, some strains of malaria are resistant to this drug. In these cases, doctors will usually prescribe at least two drugs.
Most travelers with malaria will need to follow up with their medical provider at least once. They should keep these appointments as they don’t want their malaria to get any worse. Malaria should never be entirely self-treated without any consultation with a doctor.
Travelers should make sure they get their prescription for anti-malarial medications before they travel and that they get it filled before they leave. Getting medication overseas can be difficult, especially if the traveler does not speak the language in the country they are visiting. Travelers will be well served to get their meds before they leave home.
Travelers do not need to avoid countries where malaria is common. Instead, they can take some basic precautions, as outlined above, so they don’t contract the disease.
If something goes wrong and they do get it, they should remember that it is very treatable. They just need to seek medical help right away so they don’t get extremely ill.