What is malaria?

Malaria is a serious infection which is common in tropical countries such as parts of Africa, Asia and South America. Malaria can be fatal if it is not diagnosed and treated promptly.

What are the symptoms of malaria?

Symptoms of malaria can develop one to eight weeks after you’re bitten by an infected mosquito, depending on the specific parasite you are infected with. The period before symptoms occur is called the incubation period. However, in some cases it can take up to a year before symptoms of malaria show.

Initial symptoms of malaria may include:

  • Fever (a normal temperature does not rule out malaria)
  • Sweats and shivers
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tummy upsets, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • Sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Joint or muscle pain

More severe symptoms occur when complications occur. This is usually when malaria infection is caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite.

Complications may include:

  • Kidney or liver problems
  • Serious breathing problems
  • Anaemia
  • Cerebral malaria (when malaria affects the brain and may cause fits or loss of consciousness)
  • Sepsis
  • Low sugar levels
  • Very low blood pressure

How is malaria spread?

Malaria is transmitted by the Plasmodium parasite which spread to humans through infected mosquito bites.

The five types of Plasmodium parasite that cause malaria are:

  • Plasmodium falciparum – mainly found in Africa, it’s the most common type of malaria parasite and is responsible for most malaria deaths worldwide
  • Plasmodium vivax – mainly found in Asia and South America, this parasite causes milder symptoms than Plasmodium falciparum, but it can stay in the liver for up to 3 years, which can result in relapses
  • Plasmodium ovale – fairly uncommon and usually found in West Africa, it can remain in your liver for several years without producing symptoms
  • Plasmodium malariae – this is quite rare and usually only found in Africa
  • Plasmodium knowlesi – this is very rare and found in parts of south east Asia

The plasmodium parasite is spread by female Anopheles mosquitoes. Mosquitoes generally bite between dusk and dawn.

A mosquito can become infected if it bites a person who is already infected with malaria and can spread malaria to others. Malaria can not be spread directly from person to person.

After one single bite by an infected mosquito, the parasite enters the bloodstream and travels to the liver. The parasite re-enters the bloodstream and invades the red blood cells where they grow and multiply. The red blood cells tend to burst every 48-72 hours and each time they burst more tiny parasites are released into the blood. You may experience a bout of fever, chills and sweating each time the red blood cells burst.

Malaria can also be spread through blood transfusions and the sharing of needles, but this is very rare.

How can malaria be prevented?

If you are travelling, it is very important to find out whether there is a risk of malaria in the area or areas you are going.

To check whether you need to take preventative malaria treatment for the countries you’re visiting, see the Fit for Travel website.

Malaria can often be avoided using the ABCD approach to prevention, which stands for:

  • Awareness of risk – find out whether you’re at risk of getting malaria.
  • Bite prevention – avoid mosquito bites by using insect repellent, covering your arms and legs, and using a mosquito net.
  • Check whether you need to take malaria prevention tablets – if you do, make sure you take the right antimalarial tablets at the right dose, and finish the course.
  • Diagnosis – seek immediate medical advice if you have malaria symptoms, including up to a year after you return from travelling.
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