Surfing: get to know all the health risks and diseases associated with traveling to tropical destinations | Photo: Shutterstock

As a surfer, exploring tropical waves is an enchanting part of the adventure. However, there's a shadow side to these sun-drenched paradises.

Hidden amidst palm trees and azure waters are tropical diseases that could turn your surfari into a nightmare.

The following guide will illuminate these shadowy threats, not to scare you away from the ocean's swells but to equip you with knowledge - because knowledge, after all, is your best defense.

We'll take you through the symptoms, explain how to recognize them, discuss preventive measures, and tell you what to do if you suspect you've caught something nasty.

Read on to make sure your surf trip is as epic as the waves you'll tame.

Happy surfing, stay safe and remember: the best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.

Tropics: traveling surfers should know everything about local diseases before embarking on a surf trip | Photo: Donaldson/Creative Commons


Malaria, a potentially lethal malady, arises from Plasmodium parasites, which humans contract through the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito.

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists sub-Saharan Africa as the most affected region, with countries like Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Uganda bearing the most significant disease burden.

Symptoms: Fever, chills, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, body aches, headaches, and sweats. Malaria symptoms can appear between 7 to 30 days after being bitten.

Prevention: Before you venture out:

  • Consult a travel doctor to discuss the need for antimalarial medication;
  • Avoid dusk-to-dawn outdoor activities, as this is when malaria-carrying mosquitoes are active;
  • Use mosquito repellents and wear long-sleeved clothing and pants;
  • Sleep under a mosquito net;

Treatment: If you suspect malaria, seek medical attention immediately. Antimalarial drugs are usually effective in treating malaria if caught early.


Dengue Fever

Dengue, a viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes, which earned its nickname "breakbone fever" from the intense joint and muscle pain it causes, is widespread in tropical and subtropical climates globally.

It is most prevalent in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific islands but also has a substantial impact in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Symptoms: High fever, severe headache, joint and muscle pain, rash, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms typically appear 4-7 days after the mosquito bite.

Prevention: There is no specific vaccine or medication for dengue, so prevention is key.

  • Use mosquito repellents and wear protective clothing;
  • Stay in accommodations with window and door screens;

Treatment: Dengue usually resolves on its own, but supportive care such as hydration and over-the-counter pain relievers can help. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required.

Number of people requiring interventions against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) | Illustration: WHO

Typhoid Fever

Typhoid fever, a bacterial disease known to induce high fever, diarrhea, and vomiting, is propagated via tainted food and water or through intimate contact with a carrier of the infection.

While it's a global issue, typhoid fever is most prevalent in developing nations in South Asia, such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Symptoms: Gradually increasing high fever, weakness, stomach pain, loss of appetite, and rash. Symptoms can appear 1-3 weeks after exposure.


  • Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent typhoid;
  • Avoid risky foods and drinks - like street food, raw vegetables, and tap water;
  • Hand hygiene is crucial;

Treatment: Typhoid can be treated with antibiotics, but seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you've contracted the disease.



Leptospirosis, an infection that impacts both humans and animals, originates from Leptospira bacteria, which propagate through the urine of infected animals and can be found in water or soil.

While leptospirosis is a global issue, it's more common in tropical regions like the Caribbean, South America, and Southeast Asia, particularly after heavy rainfall or flooding.

Symptoms: High fever, severe headache, muscle aches, vomiting, jaundice, red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and rash. Symptoms can occur two days to 4 weeks after exposure.


  • Avoid swimming or surfing in water contaminated with animal urine;
  • Use waterproof protective gear;

Treatment: Antibiotics are effective in treating leptospirosis if taken early.

Tropics: some tropical maladies are potentially deadly | Photo: Bishop/Creative Commons


Chikungunya is a viral ailment conveyed to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito.

It can cause fever and severe joint pain, among other symptoms.

Though the disease was initially detected in Africa, outbreaks have occurred in many countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas, particularly in tropical regions with Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Symptoms: Fever and joint pain, along with headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, or rash. Symptoms usually begin 3-7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.


  • There's no vaccine or medicine for chikungunya;
  • The best protection is avoiding mosquito bites;

Treatment: Supportive care and pain relief are the mainstays of chikungunya treatment.


Skin Infections

Skin infections, while less severe than some of the other diseases on this list, can still put a damper on a surfer's adventure.

These can be caused by a variety of factors, including fungi, bacteria, and parasites.

The prevalence of these conditions can vary widely depending on local environmental conditions and practices, but tropical and subtropical regions with high humidity can be particularly conducive to skin infections.

Tropical climates often bring skin conditions such as fungal infections, boils, and ulcers.

Prevention and Treatment:

  • Regularly clean cuts or wounds with antiseptics;
  • If you have persistent skin problems, seek local medical help;

Above all, research your destination, prepare, and practice good hygiene. It's the surf, not the sickness, that should leave you breathless.

While it's crucial to arm yourself with knowledge, it's equally important to remember that these diseases, while serious, are not the norm for every traveler.

With the right precautions, your surf adventure can be as epic as the waves you'll conquer.

So, stay vigilant.

Always consult with healthcare professionals before traveling to a tropical location and seek immediate medical attention if you feel unwell during or after your trip. 

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