Antimalarial medications in dermatology

Author(s): Dr Anes Yang, Clinical Researcher, Department of Dermatology, St George Hospital, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Dr Monisha Gupta, Consultant Dermatologist, Department of Dermatology, Liverpool Hospital, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. DermNet NZ Editor in Chief, A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. January 2018.

What are antimalarial medications?

Antimalarial medications are drugs with immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory effects. They are used to treat various skin conditions.

Antimalarial medications used in dermatology 

Hydroxychloroquine has largely replaced quinacrine and chloroquine due to its better safety profile.

How do antimalarial medications work?

Antimalarials are:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antiproliferative
  • Immunomodulatory
  • Photoprotective  
  • Weakly antithrombotic.

Anti-inflammatory effects of antimalarials

Antimalarials reduce cytokine production and the inflammatory response within macrophages, dendritic cells and lymphocytes where they are trapped within cytoplasmic lysosomes [2].

  • Lysosomal pH is increased
  • Lysosomal protease activity is decreased
  • Binding of autoantigens to the Class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is reduced
  • Decreased stimulation of toll-like receptor TLR-9
  • Activation of TLR-7, -8 and -3
  • Increased loading of class I MHC 

Anti-proliferative and immunomodulatory effects of antimalarials

Anti-proliferative and immunomodulatory effects are mediated by:

  • Decreased lymphocyte proliferation
  • Interference with natural killer cell activity
  • Alteration of autoantibody production [2].
  • Antimalarials accumulate in the skin to provide a physical photoprotective barrier by absorbing certain wavelengths of light.
  • They dampen the usual inflammatory response of keratinocytes to exposure to ultraviolet radiaton [3].
  • Antimalarial medications prevent platelet aggregation and act as prostaglandin antagonists due to inhibition of phospholipase A2 [3].
  • It is unclear whether the antithrombotic effect is therapeutically useful.
  • Hydroxychloroquine has been associated with a 15–20% decrease in serum cholesterol, triglyceride and LDL levels [1].  
  • It reduces glucose by decreasing insulin degradation resulting in lower levels of HbA1c.
  • It is antiviral, antineoplastic, and may improve bone density.

Pharmacokinetics of antimalarials

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are chemically similar and are part of the amino-quinoline family.

  • Amino-quinolines are mostly absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Peak plasma concentrations are reached within 4–12 hours.
  • Stable concentrations are achieved after 4–6 weeks. Patients should be aware that it might take 2–3 months to notice a therapeutic effect.
  • About 50% of the drug is excreted through the kidneys, therefore dose adjustments should be made in patients with severe renal impairment.
  • 60–70% of the drug binds to plasma proteins that are deposited in tissues such as the liver, spleen, kidney and lung.
  • There is a high affinity for melanin-containing cells in the skin and the retina. Deposition of amino-quinolines in these cells can lead to toxicity resulting in pigmentation changes and retinal toxicity [1].
  • For an identical dose of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, tissue levels of chloroquine are 2.5 times those of hydroxychloroquine, hence chloroquine is more toxic [1]. 

There is no cross-reactivity between the 4-amino-quinolines and quinacrine due to differences in chemical structure, therefore an adverse reaction to an amino-quinoline does not preclude the use of quinacrine.

What are antimalarials used for?

Antimalarials are first-line medications for:

They are used second-line to treat:

Antimalarials are sometimes used to treat many other inflammatory skin conditions.

Disorders treated with antimalarials

What are the contraindications to antimalarial medications?

Antimalarials should not be used in patients with known hypersensitivity to the drug or pre-existing retinopathy. Care should be taken with children, the elderly, in pregnant and lactating women, and in patients with severe renal impairment.


Smoking has been reported to inhibit the P450 enzyme system, decreasing the efficacy of antimalarial therapy, especially in patients on chloroquine [4].­ Patients on antimalarial medications are advised not to smoke. 

What monitoring is required?

  • Full blood count should be checked monthly for the first 3 months, then every 4–6 months.
  • Renal function should be checked at baseline, after 1 month, after 3 months, and then every 4–6 months (more frequent surveillance is needed if laboratory values are abnormal or in high-risk patients).
  • A pregnancy test should be undertaken in women of childbearing age.
  • Baseline ophthalmic examination within the first year of commencing therapy. In the absence of risk factors listed below, annual screening should be performed after five years [5].

Hydroxychloroquine levels can be measured in the blood.

  • No standardised therapeutic level has been validated.
  • Levels of  > 500 ng/ml indicate adherence to treatment [4].
  • In systemic lupus erythematosus, significant improvement and remission has been associated with blood levels of > 750 ng/ml.  

What are the side effects and risks of antimalarials?

With the exception of severe retinopathy, adverse effects from antimalarials usually resolve when they are discontinued.

Ocular side effects

Corneal deposits

  • Corneal deposits occur in 90% of patients on chloroquine and do not occur in patients on hydroxychloroquine.  Quinacrine can also cause deposits.
  • Corneal deposits are usually asymptomatic and treatment can be continued.
  • Patients can experience transient halos and heightened light sensitivity.
  • Deposition is dose related, occurring 4–6 weeks after therapy is initiated.


Chloroquine, and hydroxychloroquine to a lesser extent, can cause irreversible retinal toxicity. The cause is thought to be high affinity for melanin-containing cells in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) [1]. The risk of toxicity is dependent on several factors.

Major risk factors for retinal toxicity

  • Daily dose of hydroxychloroquine > 5.0 mg/kg actual body weight
  • Daily dose of chloroquine > 2.3 mg/kg actual body weight
  • Renal impairment
  • Concomitant treatment with tamoxifen
  • Pre-existing retinopathy
  • Duration of use > 5years

Routine screening is important because early antimalarial retinopathy does not cause symptoms.

Damage patterns vary with ethnicity

  • Caucasian patients present with bull’s eye retinopathy or paracentral scotoma (island of vision loss).
  • Patients with Asian heritage present with more peripheral defects.

Gastrointestinal adverse effects

Antimalarials can cause transient or persisting nausea, flatulence, vomiting or diarrhoea that resolves with reduction or cessation of medication. Symptoms can be minimised by taking the medication with food.

Cutaneous adverse effects

Neuropsychological effects

Neuropsychological side effects due to antimalarial medications are rare, and usually occur in patients treated at higher doses than those used in dermatology. Psychosis, irritability, depression, insomnia and nightmares have been reported. Anti malarial medications have rarely been known to induce seizure in predisposed individuals.

Neuromuscular effects

  • Hydroxychloroquine has been reported to cause proximal myopathy.
  • Chloroquine has been reported to cause neuromyopathy, myalgia and fatigue.

Hematological effects

Hematological side effects are uncommon. Haemolysis in patients with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, aplastic anaemia, and leukopenia has been reported but is rare [6]. Screening for G6PD deficiency is not routinely recommended for hydroxychloroquine, but is required for chloroquine.

Drug interactions with antimalarial medications [2]

Anti-malarial medications can cause several interactions with other medications.

Increased plasma levels of:

Synergistic antiarrhythmic effects with chloroquine:

  • Amiodarone

Decreased bioavailability of:

Increased bioavailability of antimalarial agent:

  • Cimetidine
  • Ritonavir

Decreased bioavailability of antimalarial agent:

  • Cholestyramine
  • Antacids

Increased risk of myopathy:

Decreased effect of:

  • Neostigmine
  • Physostigmine

Pregnancy and antimalarial medications

Antimalarial medications cross the placenta, and are considered Category D in pregnancy. This implies that they should only be taken during pregnancy if benefits outweigh the risks. However:

  • Hydroxychloroquine has not been associated with congenital defects, stillbirth, prematurity, low birth weight, fetal death, or infant retinopathy.
  • Hydroxychloroquine reduces the risk of cardiac manifestations of neonatal lupus in pregnant women with antiSSA/Ro–positive systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) [7].
  • Hydroxychloroquine is also safe during lactation.

Chloroquine can cause fetal retinopathy and should not be used in pregnancy [4].

Hence, hydroxychloroquine is the safer option for women planning pregnancy or breast feeding.

New Zealand approved datasheets are the official source of information for these prescription medicines, including approved uses and risk information. Check the individual New Zealand datasheet on the Medsafe website.


Related Information


  1. Browning, D.J., Pharmacology of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine retinopathy, D.J. Browning, Editor. 2014, Springer New York: New York, NY p. 35–63.
  2. Rodriguez-Caruncho, C. and I.B. Marsol, Antimalarials in dermatology: mechanism of action, indications, and side effects. Actas Dermo-Sifiliográficas (English Edition), 2014. 105(3): 243–252. PubMed.
  3. Kalia, S. and J.P. Dutz, New concepts in antimalarial use and mode of action in dermatology. Dermatologic Therapy, 2007. 20(4): 160–174. PubMed.
  4. Fernandez, A.P., Updated recommendations on the use of hydroxychloroquine in dermatologic practice. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2017. 76(6): 1176–1182. PubMed.
  5. Marmor, M.F., et al., Recommendations on screening for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine retinopathy (2016 revision). Ophthalmology, 2016. 123(6): 1386–1394. PubMed.
  6. Mohammad, S., et al., Hydroxychloroquine is Not Associated with Hemolytic Anemia in Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase (G6PD) Deficient Patients. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken), 2017. PubMed.
  7. Izmirly, P.M., et al., Maternal Use of Hydroxychloroquine is Associated with a Reduced Risk of Recurrent Anti-SSA/Ro Associated Cardiac Manifestations of Neonatal Lupus. Circulation, 2012. 126(1): 76–82. PubMed.

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