What Is Malaria?
Malaria is a life-threatening disease. It’s typically
transmitted through the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito.
Infected mosquitoes carry the Plasmodium parasite. When this
mosquito bites you, the parasite is released into your bloodstream.
Once the parasites are inside your body, they travel to the
liver, where they mature. After several days, the mature parasites enter the
bloodstream and begin to infect red blood cells. Within 48 to 72 hours, the
parasites inside the red blood cells multiply, causing the infected cells to
The parasites continue to infect red blood cells, resulting
in symptoms that occur in cycles that last two to three days at a time.
Malaria is typically found in tropical and subtropical
climates where the parasites can live. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates
that about 3.2
billion people are at risk of malaria.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) report 1,500 cases of malaria
annually. Most cases of malaria develop in people who travel to countries where
malaria is more common.
What Causes Malaria?
Malaria can occur if a mosquito infected with the Plasmodium parasite bites you. An infected
mother can also pass the disease to her baby at birth. This is known as
congenital malaria. Malaria is transmitted by blood, so it can also be
- use of
shared needles or syringes
What Are the Symptoms of Malaria?
The symptoms of malaria typically develop within 10 days to
four weeks following the infection. In some people, symptoms may not develop
for several months. Some malarial parasites can enter the body but will be
dormant for long periods of time. Common symptoms of malaria include:
chills that can range from moderate to severe
How Is Malaria Diagnosed?
Your doctor will be able to diagnose malaria. During your
appointment, your doctor will review your health history, including any recent
travel to tropical climates. A physical exam will also be performed. Your
doctor will be able to determine if you have an enlarged spleen or liver. If
you have symptoms of malaria, your doctor may order additional blood tests to
confirm your diagnosis. These tests will show:
or not you have malaria
type of malaria you have
your infection is caused by a parasite that’s resistant to certain types
- if the
disease has caused anemia
- if the
disease has affected your vital organs
Life-Threatening Complications of Malaria
Malaria can cause a number of life-threatening
complications. The following may occur:
of the blood vessels of the brain, or cerebral malaria
- an accumulation
of fluid in the lungs that causes breathing problems, or pulmonary edema
failure of the kidneys, liver, or spleen
due to the destruction of red blood cells
How Is Malaria Treated?
Malaria is a life-threatening condition. Treatment for the
disease is typically provided in a hospital. Your doctor will prescribe
medications based on the type of parasite that you have. In some instances, the
medication prescribed will not clear you of the infection. Parasites that are
resistant to drugs have been reported. These parasites make many drugs
ineffective. If this occurs, your doctor may need to use more than one
medication or change medications altogether to treat your condition.
What Is the Long-Term Outlook for People with Malaria?
People with malaria who receive treatment typically have a
good long-term outlook. If complications arise as a result of malaria, the
outlook may not be as good. Cerebral malaria, which causes swelling of the
blood vessels of the brain, can result in brain damage. The long-term outlook
for patients with drug-resistant parasites may also be poor. In these patients,
malaria may recur. This may cause other complications.
Tips to Prevent Malaria
There’s no vaccine available to prevent malaria. Talk to
your doctor if you’re traveling to an area where malaria is common or if you
live in such an area. You may be prescribed medications to prevent the disease.
These medications are the same as those used to treat the disease and can be
taken before, during, and after your trip.
Talk to your doctor about long-term prevention if you live
in an area where malaria is common. Sleeping under a mosquito net may help
prevent being bitten by an infected mosquito. Covering your skin or using bug
sprays containing DEET may also help prevent infection. If you’re unsure if
malaria is prevalent in your area, the CDC has an up-to-date map of where malaria can be found.