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:
- 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.
Symptoms and Causes
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:
- Fever and sweating.
- Chills that shake the whole body.
- Headache and muscle aches.
- Chest pain, breathing problems and cough.
- Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is malaria diagnosed?
Your provider will examine you and ask about your symptoms and travel history. It’s important to share information about the countries you’ve visited recently so that your provider can clearly understand your risk.
To confirm a malaria diagnosis, your provider will take a sample of your blood and send it to a lab to check for malaria parasites. The blood test will indicate whether or not you have malaria and will also identify the type of parasite that’s causing your symptoms. This information helps your provider determine the right treatment.
Management and Treatment
How is malaria treated?
Treatment for malaria should start as soon as possible. To treat malaria, your provider will prescribe drugs to kill the malaria parasite. Some parasites are resistant to malaria drugs. The type of medication and length of treatment depend on which parasite is causing your symptoms.
Antimalarial drugs include:
- Artemisinin drugs (artemether and artesunate).
- Atovaquone (Mepron®).
- Doxycycline (Doxy-100®, Monodox®, Oracea®).
What are the side effects of medications to treat malaria?
Antimalarial drugs can cause side effects. Be sure to tell your provider about other medicines you’re taking, since antimalarial drugs can interfere with them. Depending on the medication, side effects may include:
Can I prevent malaria?
If you live or travel in an area where malaria is common, talk to your provider about taking medications to prevent malaria. You will need to take the drugs before, during and after your stay.
You should also take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. To lower your chances of getting malaria, you should:
- Apply mosquito repellent with DEET (diethyltoluamide) to exposed skin.
- Drape mosquito netting over beds.
- Put screens on windows and doors.
- Treat clothing, mosquito nets, tents, sleeping bags and other fabrics with an insect repellent called permethrin.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves to cover your skin.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the outlook for people who have malaria?
If malaria isn’t treated properly, it can cause serious health problems and death. It’s essential to seek treatment right away if you think you have malaria or have visited an area where it is common. Treatment is much more effective when it’s started early.
The right medication and correct dose can treat malaria and clear the infection from your body. If you’ve had malaria before, you can get it again if an infected mosquito bites you.
When should I see my healthcare provider about malaria?
If you’ve traveled to or live in a country where malaria is common and you have symptoms of malaria, see your provider immediately. Early diagnosis makes treatment more effective. It’s also important to seek treatment right away to stop malaria from spreading to others.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Malaria is a serious illness, but it’s possible to prevent it. You can lower your risk of infection by protecting yourself from mosquito bites and taking preventive medications. If you’re traveling where malaria is common, talk to your provider several weeks before you leave.