BACKGROUNDGlobal malaria control strategies highlight the need to increase early uptake of effective antimalarials for childhood fevers in endemic settings, based on a presumptive diagnosis of malaria in this age group. Many control programmes identify private medicine sellers as important targets to promote effective early treatment, based on reported widespread inadequate childhood fever treatment practices involving the retail sector. Data on adult use of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines is limited. This study aimed to assess childhood and adult patterns of OTC medicine use to inform national medicine retailer programmes in Kenya and other similar settings.METHODSLarge-scale cluster randomized surveys of treatment seeking practices and malaria parasite prevalence were conducted for recent fevers in children under five years and recent acute illnesses in adults in three districts in Kenya with differing malaria endemicity.RESULTSA total of 12, 445 households were visited and data collected on recent illnesses in 11, 505 children and 19, 914 adults. OTC medicines were the most popular first response to fever in children with fever (47.0%; 95% CI 45.5, 48.5) and adults with acute illnesses (56.8%; 95% CI 55.2, 58.3). 36.9% (95% CI 34.7, 39.2) adults and 22.7% (95% CI 20.9, 24.6) children using OTC medicines purchased antimalarials, with similar proportions in low and high endemicity districts. 1.9% (95% CI 0.8, 4.2) adults and 12.1% (95% CI 16.3,34.2) children used multidose antimalarials appropriately. Although the majority of children and adults sought no further treatment, self-referral to a health facility within 72 hours of illness onset was the commonest pattern amongst those seeking further help.CONCLUSIONIn these surveys, OTC medicines were popular first treatments for fever in children or acute illnesses in adults. The proportions using OTC antimalarials were similar in areas of high and low malaria endemicity. In all districts, adults were more likely to self-treat with OTC antimalarial medicines than febrile children were to receive them, and less likely to use them in recommended ways. Government health centres were the most common second resort for treatment and were often used within 72 hours. In view of these practices, more research is needed to assess the impact on the popularity of private medicine sellers of strengthened public sector policies on access to malaria treatment and insecticide-treated bed nets. Improved targeting of OTC antimalarials to high risk groups, better communication strategies regarding adult as well as children's dosages, and facilitating more rapid referral to trained health workers where needed are important challenges to private medicine seller programmes.