What Are Malaria Pills?

Medically Reviewed by Kumar Shital, DO on September 17, 2023
4 min read

You can take medicine to treat malaria. You can also take medicine to make it less likely you’ll get the disease.

Malaria is a serious disease that causes high fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms that can be life-threatening if not treated quickly. You can get malaria when you visit different parts of the world, especially countries in warmer, tropical climates.

Using drugs to prevent sickness is known as prophylactic medicine. You don’t have the disease, and you’re taking medicine to keep it that way.

But malaria pills aren’t 100% effective in preventing the disease. The pills should be used with other preventive steps, such as wearing insect repellant, wearing long sleeves, and protecting your sleeping area with a net or other kind of bed treatment.

Long before you set foot into a foreign country, follow these steps:

  1. Check the CDC and World Health Organization websites to see whether your destination is a hot spot for malaria. Regions affected by malaria include Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, parts of Central and South America, and the Middle East.
  2. Get details of where you’ll go during your trip. Your chance of getting malaria will vary depending on your activities and where in the country you’ll be traveling. Your doctor needs this info so they can prescribe the drug that works best with the type of malaria parasites that are active there. CDC’s “Malaria Information by Country Table” gives you detailed malaria info about each country.
  3. See your doctor or travel clinic about 4 to 6 weeks before your trip. Some malaria pills require that you start taking the drug 3 weeks before you depart.

You’ll be directed to take the drugs before, during, and anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks after traveling to a malaria-prone area. This is because the parasites that cause the disease can linger in your body long after you’ve been bitten.

The drugs kill malaria parasites when they’re in your liver or red blood cells -- before they get out of control.

You can still get malaria even if you’ve taken the pills. But taking them cuts your chances of getting sick by about 90%. The drugs are not a vaccine; there is no vaccine for malaria.

Your doctor will likely choose the drug that’s recommended for the area where you’re traveling. It might be one of the following:

  • Atovaquone-proguanil (Malarone): You’ll take this pill daily, starting 1 to 2 days before your trip, and you’ll keep taking it for a week afterward. Side effects of this drug are less common than for other drugs, but pregnant women or people with kidney problems shouldn’t take it. Atovaquone-proguanil also costs more than some other malaria drugs.
  • Chloroquine: This drug is taken once a week, starting about 1 to 2 weeks before your trip and continuing for 4 weeks after. But chloroquine is rarely used anymore, because it no longer works against P. falciparum, the most common and dangerous type of malaria parasite. Your doctor might recommend it if you’re going to areas where there’s malaria not caused by P. falciparum.
  • Doxycycline: This daily pill is usually the most affordable malaria drug. You start taking it 1 to 2 days before your trip and continue taking it for 4 weeks afterward. Side effects include upset stomach, bad reactions to the sun, and if you’re a woman, yeast infections. Pregnant women and children younger than 8 shouldn’t take this pill.
  • Mefloquine: Begin taking this weekly drug 1-2 weeks before travel and continue until 4 weeks afterward. Pregnant women can use it, but people who have a history of seizures, severe heart problems, or psychiatric conditions shouldn’t. Side effects can include dizziness, sleep disturbance, and psychiatric reactions.
  • Primaquine: This weekly drug is taken 1 to 2 days before travel, continuing until 1 week afterward. Side effects can include an upset stomach. Pregnant women shouldn’t take Primaquine. Nor should people who have a condition called G6PD deficiency, in which certain drugs cause red blood cells to break down.
  • Tafenoquine (ArakodaKozenis, Krintafel): This new drug is recommended for adults aged 16 years or older who are traveling to malarious areas. It is to be taken daily for 3 days prior to travel to the region, once a week while there, and then a dose seven days after exiting the area.
    Tafenoquine can also be used to stop relapse in those who are already infected with malaria. The drug has been known to cause an upset stomach. It should not be taken by those younger than 16 years of age, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, those with G6PD deficiency, and those with a history of psychiatric disorders.

If you have symptoms of malaria, get help at once. It’s important to start treatment as soon as possible before it gets more severe.

Your doctor will try to decide what type of malaria infection you have in order to figure out which drug you should take. This is important, as some malaria parasites have become resistant to certain drugs. Your doctor may prescribe a combo of malaria medications to help you avoid this drug-resistance problem.

The type of drug you’re prescribed will depend on several things, including:

  • The type of malaria infection you have
  • Your age
  • Your physical condition
  • Whether you took medicine to prevent malaria and, if so, what kind
  • Whether you’re pregnant
  • Your medical history

These drugs may be swallowed or taken through an IV line for people with severe cases.

Many of the medicines used to treat malaria are the same ones listed above for preventing it. You shouldn’t take the same medicine to treat malaria that you took when you were trying to prevent it.