What is malaria?

Malaria is a serious disease that spreads when an infected mosquito bites a human. Tiny parasites can infect mosquitoes. When it bites, the mosquito injects malaria parasites into the person’s bloodstream.

If it isn’t treated, malaria can cause severe health problems such as seizures, brain damage, trouble breathing, organ failure and death. The disease is rare in the United States. If you’re traveling to an area where malaria is common, talk to your provider about malaria prevention.

How common is malaria?

Malaria is common in tropical areas where it’s hot and humid. In the United States, about 2,000 people get malaria every year. Worldwide, more than 220 million people get malaria annually. The majority of these cases occur in Africa and South Asia. Around 450,000 people die from the disease every year.

Where does malaria usually occur?

Malaria occurs all over the world, but it’s rare in the United States. It’s common in developing countries and areas with warm temperatures and high humidity, including:

  • Africa.
  • Central and South America.
  • Dominican Republic, Haiti and other areas in the Caribbean.
  • Eastern Europe.
  • South Asia.
  • Islands in the Central and South Pacific Ocean (Oceania).

Who might get malaria?

More than 90% of malaria deaths occur in Africa, and nearly all of the people who die are young children. Malaria is rare in the United States. But people who are infected and travel to the U.S. can spread the disease if a mosquito bites them and then bites someone else.

Anyone can get malaria, but people who live in Africa have a higher risk of infection than others. Young children, older people and pregnant women have an increased risk of dying from malaria. People who live in poverty and don’t have access to healthcare are more likely to have complications from the disease.

What causes malaria?

People get malaria when an infected mosquito bites them. A mosquito becomes infected by biting someone who has malaria. The infected mosquito transfers a parasite into a person’s bloodstream, where the parasites multiply. Five types of malaria parasites can infect humans.

In rare cases, pregnant women with malaria can transfer the disease to their children before or during birth. Very rarely, malaria can transfer through blood transfusions, organ donations and hypodermic needles.

What are the symptoms of malaria?

Malaria symptoms usually appear 10 days to one month after the person was infected. Symptoms can be mild. Some people don’t feel sick for up to a year after the mosquito bite. Parasites can live in the body for several years without causing symptoms.

Signs of malaria are similar to flu symptoms. They include:

As malaria progresses, it can cause anemia and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/20/2020.

References

  • Merck Manuals. Malaria. Accessed 8/20/2020.
  • Centers for Disease Control. Malaria. Accessed 8/20/2020.
  • National Organization for Rare Disorders. Malaria. Accessed 8/20/2020.

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