What is Malaria?

Individuals contract Malaria when they are bitten by a mosquito that is infected with a malaria parasite. After becoming infected, the malaria parasite lives in the red blood cells of humans. Since the parasite is in a person’s blood, the disease can also be transmitted to other people through blood transfusions, organ transplantation or using the same needle and syringe as a person who is infected.

Pregnant women can also pass the disease on to their child before or during birth. Malaria is a serious threat in warm tropical and subtropical areas, such as parts of Africa and Oceania. People who travel to these areas of the world should take precautions to protect themselves from contracting the disease.

What are the Symptoms of Malaria?

Malaria symptoms will usually begin between one to two weeks after the mosquito bite, but it can take up to one month for signs to appear. Early symptoms consist of having a fever with a headache and feeling extremely cold. Individuals will then break out into a sweat and this cycle, along with feeling fatigued, can last for 6 to 12 hours.

Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may also be present. As the disease intensifies, it can impact numerous systems in the body. When this occurs symptoms may accelerate to seizures, breathing problems, liver or kidney failure, anemia, confusion, cardiovascular issues and unconsciousness due to swelling of the brain.

Malaria Causes

Malaria is usually a result of being bitten by a mosquito that has been infected with one of five different species of the Plasmodium parasites that can infect people.

Those five species (and where they are usually found) are:

  • Plasmodium falciparum (near the equator, in tropic and subtropic climates)
  • Plasmodium vivax (tropical regions around the world)
  • Plasmodium malariae (tropical regions around the world)
  • Plasmodium knowlesi (southeast Asia)
  • Plasmodium ovale (mostly western Africa, but can be found in other areas)

Sometimes malaria is caused by exposure to infected blood through blood transfusions, from sharing drug needles, or from a mother to her unborn child.

The people most at risk are those who either live or travel to areas of the world where the condition is common. Those more at risk of becoming seriously ill include:

  • infants and young children
  • travelers from malaria-free countries
  • women who are pregnant and their unborn children

While people who live in malaria-infected regions tend to develop a partial immunity because of how often they are exposed, that immunity can be lost if they move someplace where they are not exposed so often.

How is Malaria Treated?

The specific treatment for malaria depends on the parasite species, drug resistance, a person’s age, the seriousness of the condition and if the individual is pregnant.

Common medications for treating malaria include quinine, chloroquine, mefloquine and a combination of atovaquone and proguanil. Medications may be administered intravenously or taken orally in pill form. Individuals who are quickly diagnosed and receive the proper treatment can expect to recover from malaria.

Malaria Prevention

Malaria is a preventable disease. People moving or traveling to a malaria-infected region should talk to their doctors about where they are going, which Plasmodium parasite they are most at risk of being infected by, and the best ways to prevent an infection. Depending on where they are going, they will probably be prescribed the medications they would use to treat the condition to take before, during, and after their trip.

Additionally, people traveling to these areas or moving there should plan to sleep under treated mosquito nets and use bug spray with DEET in order to prevent being bitten by a parasite-infected mosquito.