What is malaria?

Malaria is a disease that occurs when the blood is infected by parasites carried by mosquitoes. There are five different types of malaria-causing parasites that can affect humans. This disease has been—mostly—wiped out in the United States but remains a serious threat to human life in many parts of the world. It is a threat not only to those living in countries where it is common but to anyone traveling to these areas. Under the right conditions, malaria can be rapidly spread, even in areas where is not usually found.

What are the symptoms of malaria?

  • High fever
  • Chills
  • Shaking
  • Extreme sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches and general discomfort
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

If the symptoms of malaria go untreated, the disease can lead to death.

What causes malaria?

Malaria occurs when a mosquito infected with a parasite bites a person and passes the parasite into their blood stream. The parasite multiplies in the red blood cells, destroying them, and causes the person to become very sick.

An uninfected mosquito picks up the parasite when it bites an infected person. The parasite then multiplies in the mosquito and can then be passed on to other people. It is easy to see how quickly many people can become infected.

How common is malaria?

Malaria is a worldwide problem. With the number of people traveling throughout the world it continues to be a risk even in countries where it does not commonly occur.

Malaria is very common in developing counties and areas with high humidity and warm but moderate temperatures. Some of the areas where malaria is most common are:

  • Parts of Central and South America
  • Haiti
  • The Dominican Republic
  • Africa
  • Eastern Europe
  • South and Southeast Asia
  • The South Pacific

The deadliest types of malaria are most common in Africa.

Who can get malaria?

  • Anyone exposed to a mosquito infected with the parasites causing malaria
  • People living or traveling to one of the areas where malaria occurs
  • People exposed to blood that is infected with malaria
  • A fetus can contract malaria during pregnancy or birth if the mother is infected

How is malaria diagnosed?

Doctors may suspect malaria in patients who have traveled to an area where it is common and are exhibiting flu-like symptoms. This is not always the case in countries where it does not often occur, like the United States.

A more definite diagnosis can be reached by collecting and examining a small sample of the patient’s blood. This sample is taken by a finger prick and more than one sample may be collected. The sample is then examined to determine if the disease is present, which type(s) the patient has, and the severity or stage of the disease.

There are some “rapid” testing methods available when a standard blood test is not possible. There are some problems with these types of tests. They are often costly and are not as reliable as the standard blood test.

How is malaria treated?

To begin treating malaria, doctors must first know which type of parasite has caused the malaria. Depending on the area where the infection took place some of these parasites can be resistant to certain drugs.

It is important to start treatment as soon as possible. Malaria can be deadly, and treatment is more effective when begun early.

There are medications that can be taken by mouth or through an IV (intravenous) line. IV drugs are recommended for those who cannot take medications orally or who have the parasite that causes the most severe malaria.

What are the side effects of treatment?

Side effects of some medications used to treat malaria are:

  • Sensitivity to sunlight
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Mouth ulcers

What complications are associated with malaria?

Untreated malaria can cause death. It is important to seek treatment immediately.

The development of drug resistant parasites is also a serious concern in the treatment of malaria. Some of these parasites are now able to survive and multiply despite anti-malarial drugs. For this reason it is important to tell your doctor what areas you have traveled to and the time you were there. This information is necessary for successfully treating malaria.

What is the prognosis for people with malaria?

Malaria is curable if treated early enough. Severe malaria can lead to serious complications or death. Again, early treatment is the most important part of treating malaria.

Can malaria be prevented?

Yes, malaria can be prevented. Here are some important tips for preventing malaria.

  • Check with your Health Department to find out if malaria is a risk when traveling out of the country.
  • If traveling to a country where malaria is common, talk to your doctor or health department about taking medication that could prevent you from getting malaria.
  • When traveling in areas with mosquito infestation, put on insect repellent that contains N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET).
  • Wear clothing that does not leave your skin exposed to mosquitoes.
  • When living in or visiting a country where malaria is commonly found, sleep under treated mosquito netting.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 4/5/2012…#15014