What is malaria?

Malaria is a disease that occurs when blood is infected by parasites that are passed on through mosquito bites. There are five different types of malaria-causing parasites that can affect humans. Malaria has been mostly wiped out in the United States but is still 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. This means malaria can be rapidly spread even in areas where it is not usually found.

What are the symptoms of malaria?

The symptoms of malaria include:

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

If the symptoms of malaria are not treated, the disease can lead to death.

What causes malaria?

Malaria occurs when a mosquito infected with a malarial parasite bites a person and passes the parasite into his or her bloodstream. The parasite multiplies in the red blood cells, destroys 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 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 countries and areas with high humidity and warm but moderate temperatures. Areas where malaria is most common include:

  • 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?

People who can get malaria include those who are:

  • Exposed to a mosquito that is infected with the parasites that cause malaria;
  • Living in or traveling to one of the areas where malaria occurs;
  • Exposed to blood that is infected with malaria.

In addition, a fetus can become infected with 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 malaria is common and who have fever or flu-like symptoms. They can reach a more definite diagnosis with a small sample of the patient's blood (taken by a finger prick) and expert microscopic examination of the sample. Doctors can then see if the patient has malaria, and which type(s).

There are some “rapid” testing methods available when expert microscopic review of a blood smear is not possible, but these are often costly. They can help guide treatment while waiting for confirmation of the diagnosis by microscopy.

How is malaria treated?

To begin treating malaria, doctors must first know what type of parasite has caused the disease. 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 it is started early.

Malaria drugs can be taken orally (by mouth) or through an intravenous (IV) line. IV drugs are recommended for those who cannot take medications orally or for patients who are severely ill.

What are the side effects of treatment for malaria?

Side effects of some drugs used to treat malaria include:

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

What complications are associated with malaria?

Untreated malaria can cause death, so it’s important to seek treatment immediately.

The development of drug-resistant parasites is also a serious worry in the treatment of malaria. Some of these parasites are now able to survive and multiply despite anti-malarial drugs. To successfully treat malaria, it is important to tell your doctor what areas you have traveled to and when you were there.

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with malaria?

Early treatment is the most important part of treating malaria; it is curable if it is treated early enough. Severe malaria can lead to serious complications or death.

Can malaria be prevented?

Yes, malaria can be prevented. Here are some important tips to help keep you from getting the disease:

  • Check with your Health Department to find out if malaria is a risk when traveling out of the country.
  • If you are traveling to a country where malaria is common, talk to your doctor or health department about taking medication that could keep 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: 5/10/2017…#15014