Before you go: The natural traveller
If your travel plans involve climbing from sea level to the top of Kilimanjaro, altitude illness can be a concern. Many travellers who arrive abruptly in high altitude cities - La Paz or Lhasa for instance - without having time to acclimatize, use the non-homeopathic medication, Diamox (acetazolamide). In most other cases however, when you are ascending under your own steam, it is your personal behavior that is most important. Go slowly, drink lots of water, learn to recognize the symptoms of altitude illness and don’t ascend if they occur.
In Bolivia and Peru coca tea has a huge following and many travellers who have trekked at high altitudes in the Andes swear by it. Coca tea may act as a stimulant, and helps to maintain hydration, an important aspect of preventing altitude illness. In Nepal, garlic soup holds a similar status. So the old adage, “when in Rome, do as the Romans … or Peruvians or Nepalese” applies to high altitude destinations as well.
The Romans didn’t always know best though. Long ago people were getting sick and even dying in and around the marshy areas of ancient Rome and the Romans attributed it to bad air – mal aria. Of course, we know now that its not bad air but rather a parasite carried by certain mosquitoes that causes malaria.
Step one in avoiding malaria is to stay covered and use a good insect repellant so that you minimize getting bitten by mosquitoes. One of the most common and definitely the most effective insect repellant is DEET. Not everyone is crazy about using DEET because they believe that it is bad for the environment, that it’s a carcinogen and that it will be absorbed by your liver and brain. These things simply aren’t true. Just don’t bathe your young children in it, and keep it off your sunglasses and Ipod.
There are natural insect repellents available, although they won’t last as long as those containing thirty percent DEET – which can be effective for five to six hours. Citronella has a pleasing smell, and can be spread on the skin or burned as a coil or candle. Just don’t expect the protection to last much longer than an hour. The same goes for eucalyptus oil. Soybean oil, marketed under the name Bite Blocker, may prolong that protection for up to two hours. As for eating bananas or garlic, or taking vitamin B, … I don’t think they really work.
Malaria is a potentially life threatening infection. There are homeopathic treatments and preventative remedies for malaria – they most commonly contain quinine. Derived from the bark of chinchona trees, quinine, when used in the medically recommended doses, is a still useful treatment for malaria. Tonic water contains tiny amounts of quinine, but if you are counting on gin and tonics to treat your malaria, my calculations tell me that it would take an awful lot of tonic to achieve a therapeutic effect. You would still have your malaria, you just might not care! Artemesia is derived from the Chinese shrub artemesia annua. In combination with other antimalarials, derivatives of this plant such as artemesinin and artesunate are the preferred treatment of malaria throughout most of the world. But again, this is in doses that have been proven to be effective.
The take-home message here is that in the case of potentially life-threatening illnesses, like malaria for instance, I would beg you to avoid “natural” remedies. But by all means do your research and feel free to try out whatever you want for irritating but less serious maladies of travel. Common sense, which we usually come by naturally, is also worth taking along.