Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite. The parasite is spread to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes. People who have malaria usually feel very sick with a high fever and shaking chills.
While the disease is uncommon in temperate climates, malaria is still common in tropical and subtropical countries. Each year nearly 290 million people are infected with malaria, and more than 400,000 people die of the disease.
To reduce malaria infections, world health programs distribute preventive drugs and insecticide-treated bed nets to protect people from mosquito bites. A partially effective vaccine is being piloted in a few African countries, but there is no vaccine for travelers.
Protective clothing, bed nets and insecticides can protect you while traveling. You also can take preventive medicine before, during and after a trip to a high-risk area. Many malaria parasites have developed resistance to common drugs used to treat the disease.
Signs and symptoms of malaria may include:
- General feeling of discomfort
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle or joint pain
- Rapid breathing
- Rapid heart rate
Some people who have malaria experience cycles of malaria "attacks." An attack usually starts with shivering and chills, followed by a high fever, followed by sweating and a return to normal temperature.
Malaria signs and symptoms typically begin within a few weeks after being bitten by an infected mosquito. However, some types of malaria parasites can lie dormant in your body for up to a year.
When to see a doctor
Talk to your doctor if you experience a fever while living in or after traveling to a high-risk malaria region. If you have severe symptoms, seek emergency medical attention.
Malaria is caused by a single-celled parasite of the genus plasmodium. The parasite is transmitted to humans most commonly through mosquito bites.
Mosquito transmission cycle
- Uninfected mosquito. A mosquito becomes infected by feeding on a person who has malaria.
- Transmission of parasite. If this mosquito bites you in the future, it can transmit malaria parasites to you.
- In the liver. Once the parasites enter your body, they travel to your liver — where some types can lie dormant for as long as a year.
- Into the bloodstream. When the parasites mature, they leave the liver and infect your red blood cells. This is when people typically develop malaria symptoms.
- On to the next person. If an uninfected mosquito bites you at this point in the cycle, it will become infected with your malaria parasites and can spread them to the other people it bites.
Other modes of transmission
Because the parasites that cause malaria affect red blood cells, people can also catch malaria from exposure to infected blood, including:
- From mother to unborn child
- Through blood transfusions
- By sharing needles used to inject drugs
The greatest risk factor for developing malaria is to live in or to visit areas where the disease is common. These include the tropical and subtropical regions of:
- Sub-Saharan Africa
- South and Southeast Asia
- Pacific Islands
- Central America and northern South America
The degree of risk depends on local malaria control, seasonal changes in malaria rates and the precautions you take to prevent mosquito bites.
Risks of more-severe disease
People at increased risk of serious disease include:
- Young children and infants
- Older adults
- Travelers coming from areas with no malaria
- Pregnant women and their unborn children
In many countries with high malaria rates, the problem is worsened by lack of access to preventive measures, medical care and information.
Immunity can wane
Residents of a malaria region may be exposed to the disease enough to acquire a partial immunity, which can lessen the severity of malaria symptoms. However, this partial immunity can disappear if you move to a place where you're no longer frequently exposed to the parasite.
Malaria can be fatal, particularly when caused by the plasmodium species common in Africa. The World Health Organization estimates that about 94% of all malaria deaths occur in Africa — most commonly in children under the age of 5.
Malaria deaths are usually related to one or more serious complications, including:
- Cerebral malaria. If parasite-filled blood cells block small blood vessels to your brain (cerebral malaria), swelling of your brain or brain damage may occur. Cerebral malaria may cause seizures and coma.
- Breathing problems. Accumulated fluid in your lungs (pulmonary edema) can make it difficult to breathe.
- Organ failure. Malaria can damage the kidneys or liver or cause the spleen to rupture. Any of these conditions can be life-threatening.
- Anemia. Malaria may result in not having enough red blood cells for an adequate supply of oxygen to your body's tissues (anemia).
- Low blood sugar. Severe forms of malaria can cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), as can quinine — a common medication used to combat malaria. Very low blood sugar can result in coma or death.
Malaria may recur
Some varieties of the malaria parasite, which typically cause milder forms of the disease, can persist for years and cause relapses.
If you live in or are traveling to an area where malaria is common, take steps to avoid mosquito bites. Mosquitoes are most active between dusk and dawn. To protect yourself from mosquito bites, you should:
- Cover your skin. Wear pants and long-sleeved shirts. Tuck in your shirt, and tuck pant legs into socks.
- Apply insect repellent to skin. Use an insect repellent registered with the Environmental Protection Agency on any exposed skin. These include repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-3,8-diol (PMD) or 2-undecanone. Do not use a spray directly on your face. Do not use products with OLE or PMD on children under age 3.
- Apply repellent to clothing. Sprays containing permethrin are safe to apply to clothing.
- Sleep under a net. Bed nets, particularly those treated with insecticides, such as permethrin, help prevent mosquito bites while you are sleeping.
If you'll be traveling to a location where malaria is common, talk to your doctor a few months ahead of time about whether you should take drugs before, during and after your trip to help protect you from malaria parasites.
In general, the drugs taken to prevent malaria are the same drugs used to treat the disease. What drug you take depends on where and how long you are traveling and your own health.
Researchers are developing malaria vaccines to prevent infection, but currently vaccines are experimental and not approved for general use.
To diagnose malaria, your doctor will likely review your medical history and recent travel, conduct a physical exam, and order blood tests. Blood tests can indicate:
- The presence of the parasite in the blood, to confirm that you have malaria
- Which type of malaria parasite is causing your symptoms
- If your infection is caused by a parasite resistant to certain drugs
- Whether the disease is causing any serious complications
Some blood tests can take several days to complete, while others can produce results in less than 15 minutes. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may order additional diagnostic tests to assess possible complications.
Malaria is treated with prescription drugs to kill the parasite. The types of drugs and the length of treatment will vary, depending on:
- Which type of malaria parasite you have
- The severity of your symptoms
- Your age
- Whether you're pregnant
The most common antimalarial drugs include:
- Chloroquine phosphate. Chloroquine is the preferred treatment for any parasite that is sensitive to the drug. But in many parts of the world, parasites are resistant to chloroquine, and the drug is no longer an effective treatment.
- Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). ACT is a combination of two or more drugs that work against the malaria parasite in different ways. This is usually the preferred treatment for chloroquine-resistant malaria. Examples include artemether-lumefantrine (Coartem) and artesunate-mefloquine.
Other common antimalarial drugs include:
- Atovaquone-proguanil (Malarone)
- Quinine sulfate (Qualaquin) with doxycycline (Oracea, Vibramycin, others)
- Primaquine phosphate
Preparing for an appointment
If you suspect you have malaria or that you've been exposed, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred to an infectious disease specialist. If you have severe symptoms — especially during or after travel in an area where malaria is common — seek emergency medical attention.
What you can do
Before your appointment, you might want to write down answers to the following questions:
- What are your symptoms, and when did they start?
- Where have you traveled recently?
- How long did you travel and when did you return?
- Did you take any preventive drugs related to your travel?
- What other medications do you take, including dietary supplements and herbal remedies?